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Published: Tuesday, 3/16/2010

Bell sends layoff notices to 125 city police officers

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell told 125 police officers yesterday they would be without jobs in 30 days unless his plan to balance a $48 million deficit with union concessions, a trash-fee increase, and higher taxes for a select few gets approval from City Council.

The same number of Toledo firefighters avoided getting layoff notices, the result of a last-minute negotiation that Mr. Bell called "positive" but refused to discuss.

The city would save $4.08 million - just 8.5 percent of the total budget deficit - by laying off the 125 police officers, plus $925,000 by canceling plans to hire 30 police recruits in September.

"We put out a list of … people that we were intending to lay off," Mr. Bell said yesterday. "Since this morning, we have actually had some very, very positive action from one of the unions and we have actually backed off on about 125 layoffs."

The mayor said laying off 125 police officers and 12 civilian city employees, along with eliminating 20.5 vacant positions, is part of a contingency plan.

Toledo City Council could vote today on Mr. Bell's proposal to enact an 8 percent sports-and-event tax, increasing the monthly fee for collecting trash to $15, and eliminating the income tax credit for Toledoans who work outside the city.

The mayor is also asking council to force concessions from city unions without them agreeing to renegotiate terms of their contracts. He wants council to approve a controversial measure called "exigent circumstances." Last year, council refused to do that for Mayor Carty Finkbeiner when the deficit was $27.7 million.

The city has 590 sworn police officers.

Dan Wagner, president of the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association, said the police department would be severely limited with 125 fewer officers.

"It could be posturing and it could be a probable measure they are willing to take," Mr. Wagner said. "Given how violent Toledo has been in the past couple of weeks, I don't think it's wise, but he is going to do what he thinks he has to do to balance the budget."

He questioned why firefighters seemed to get better treatment from Mr. Bell, who was Toledo's fire chief for 17 years.

"We understand the fire layoffs were rescinded earlier today because they are set to meet with the mayor on Thursday," Mr. Wagner said. "We are set to meet with him [tomorrow], so we are not sure why we weren't extended the same privileges."

Mr. Bell said there had been "no good movement" with the police union or other city unions on his concessions requests.

Mr. Wagner and Wayne Hartford, president of Toledo Firefighters Local 92, have said they would negotiate with Mr. Bell, but they are not willing to accept the concessions as proposed.

Mr. Bell wants to save $6.27 million by ceasing payments into the employee pension program and $2.6 million by having employees pay 20 percent of their medical-coverage costs.

Dan Desmond, Local 92 vice president, declined to talk about the union's discussion with the mayor yesterday.

If Toledo police are laid off, the action for the department would be the second in two consecutive years.

Mr. Finkbeiner laid off 75 police officers on May 1, 2009.

Retired Toledo Officer Gene Cook, who owns Cook Motor Sales on Reynolds Road in West Toledo, said he would close the business if police are laid off again.

"We had 16 vehicles and our building broken into last year when they had the layoffs … and I had zero the year before," Mr. Cook said. "There were no police patrols and they [criminals] knew no one was going to be by with a spotlight."

Mr. Cook said the business lost $22,000 during that period last year.

"We cannot continue to absorb these losses," he said. "Unfortunately, they are forcing me to leave the city because we are taking it in the teeth because the city is not managing its money properly."

The officers laid off last year were hired back with state and federal grant money. By accepting that money, Mr. Finkbeiner promised Toledo would keep its police force at 564 sworn officers for four years.

If the 125 officers are laid off, Toledo could forfeit the $7.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's COPS Hiring Recovery Program that allowed the city to rehire the officers Mr. Finkbeiner laid off.

Mr. Bell also said the city is prepared to give back the grant money, but "the jury is still out" whether that would be required.

Jen Sorgenfrei, Mr. Bell's spokesman, said the city could forfeit the remaining $5.5 million that has not been used and would have to repay about $1.6 million.

Mr. Finkbeiner last year originally said he would lay off 150 police officers but at the last moment, he cut the number to 75.

The layoff was issued in the middle of labor negotiations with the city safety forces that were not concluded until July, when new three-year contracts were signed.

Mr. Finkbeiner said City Council could have prevented the reduction to the police force by increasing the monthly trash fee and cutting the tax credit in half.

Earlier in the year, Mr. Finkbeiner failed in an attempt to cut the number of firefighters required by their contract to be on duty at any one given time.

Less than 24 hours after he announced in February, 2009, a plan to reduce the contract-mandated 103 fire-

fighters a day to 99, a Lucas County Common Pleas Court judge granted a temporary restraining order to stop the change.

The contractual minimum manning requirement would not have stopped firefighter layoffs this year, Mayor Bell said yesterday.

"Because I would not have been able to pay them," Mr. Bell offered as the reason around that part of the union's contract.

The minimum staffing for firefighters was established in 1988, and through numerous contracts, the city and union have agreed to keep it at 103.

In 2009, the fire department received 49,451 calls for service. That number was up from about 40,000 calls received in 1988, when the minimum manning number was created.

There were 231,199 calls for police service last year, compared with 249,424 in 2008 and 255,609 in 2007.

City Council President Wilma Brown said yesterday she would vote to approve all of Mr. Bell's proposals.

"I wish [the police] had made concessions to avoid this," Ms. Brown said. "We have no choice. We have to do layoffs. But, whatever it takes, I am going to vote for everything that it takes to balance the budget."

Even Councilman Michael Ashford, who just last week promised "no" votes on any fee increase or higher tax, softened his position yesterday.

"I have been through this before … and we will see an unrest in certain neighborhoods and people will start to feel uncomfortable," Mr. Ashford said. "As of right now, I am going to go back and revisit each and every thing from the mayor and I may have to take a look at all of them."

Councilman D. Michael Collins, a retired police officer and former head of the patrolman's union, said the city could not operate with just 465 sworn officers.

"One hundred twenty-five police officers laid off will be devastating," Mr. Collins said. "It will hit the ranks of patrol and command and it will have a very negative effect on response times."

Among the civilian employees to get layoff notices yesterday were Payroll Supervisor Mary Ward, the city's longest-serving employee.

Ms. Ward, who became a city employee Jan. 12, 1953, could "bump" another employee with less seniority.

Steve Herwat, deputy mayor of operations, acknowledged yesterday that Ms. Ward is a longtime employee who started working for the city before he was even born.

Other employees who got layoff notices yesterday included Sherrie Shipman, manager of recreation for the city, and Tim Burns, Mr. Finkbeiner's son-in-law, hired last year by the former mayor as acting manager of the city's parks and forestry division.

Staff writers Jim Sielicki and Bridget Tharp contributed to this report.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.


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