Monday, December 31, 2012

Detroit Economic Crisis: More Layoffs Mean Fewer City Services, Unions Say

December 31, 2012 at 1:00 am

More layoffs mean fewer city services, unions say

Mayor Dave Bing's plan to cut work force will lower costs, but still hurt taxpayers, they say

By Darren A. Nichols
The Detroit News

Detroit — As the city struggles to stay financially solvent, the looming threat of employee furlough days and layoffs means Detroit soon may be unable to deliver basic services, employees and union leaders warn.

The city, which faces a deficit as high as $113 million by June 30, is working to restructure itself under a consent deal with the state.

But even with the infusion of millions in anticipated bond funds over the next few weeks, Mayor Dave Bing has said the city's work force must be reduced to reflect the reality of a plummeting population.

Leamon Wilson, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 312, said the city is operating with at least 100 fewer bus mechanics than it did about a year go.

He worries that with another round of layoffs, there won't be enough employees to keep the bus fleet running. The result is the fleet will get smaller and buses will not run on time.

"You can't deliver the service. It's crippled already," said Wilson, who represents the city's bus mechanics. His union had about 240 mechanics a year ago and now has 140. "It was already functioning at a bare minimum. I don't see how anything is going to be functioning."

Bing is in the process of implementing 400 to 500 layoffs in departments across the city. Officials are combing departments to determine exactly where the personnel will come from. If implemented, they could take effect sometime in February.

Bing spokesman Robert Warfield said because the list of layoffs is still being compiled, it's too early to assess the impact.

Bing called for the layoffs while in a dispute with the City Council over the stalled Miller Canfield contract. Bing initially said that if the contract was not approved, the city would need to implement the layoffs and institute furlough days to offset the $30 million it was expected to lose in state bond funding.

Two weeks later, officials backtracked and said they needed the layoffs to reduce the deficit. The state released $10 million last week.

Cutting jobs may not work

The Bing administration has been criticized by council members and others for its reluctance to pare the work force. But it has followed through on the nearly 2,500 jobs cuts called for in this year's budget.

Since November 2011, Detroit has dropped from 11,898 to 9,898 employees, according to a report delivered to the Financial Advisory Board earlier this month. That includes a drop of about 900 city employees in the last five months. The moves save about $58 million, officials said.

Sally Petrella, who lives on the west side, is bracing for the cuts she said will only make Detroit's situation worse. Petrella wants to see a more regional approach to delivering services, similar to how the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Institute of Arts operate.

"I'm extremely concerned," she said. "It's already very difficult to get a police officer when any sort of crime occurs, and this will certainly worsen the problem. Layoffs are going to cause more problems with residents with any sort of services. The city is stretched so thin to provide services for residents."

Political analyst Steve Hood acknowledges there may be fat on the city's employment rolls, but he is hesitant to say slashing another 500 jobs is the answer. Cutting more employees is putting the city "in a death spiral" because each person is a taxpayer at a time when revenue is at a premium, he said.

Hood instead said he would prefer the City Council go part-time. He also suggested conducting an operational audit to determine which areas should be cut, and other alternatives such as collecting garbage once a week and even shutting down all city operations a few days a week.

"Less pay is better than having (city employees) be totally out of work," said Hood, whose brother and father served on the Detroit City Council. "Let's do anything than put them totally out of work.

"You can only cut so far, and they may be at that point. If you have fewer people, you have (less) money to deal with. (By cutting workers), you cut money flowing throughout the city."

Union leaders criticize Bing

Greg Murray, a longtime City Hall critic and former union leader, said layoffs will cause a brain drain because the people who are leaving are the most experienced and know the nuances of city government.

"The debt gets serviced and the residents don't," said Murray, former vice president of the Senior Accountants, Analysts and Appraisers Association. He was laid off from his job last fall.

"This is a formula that is affecting the quality of life for Detroit residents. Dave Bing's legacy will be a dismantling of vital services that Detroiters need. He's strangling the bureaucracy by getting rid of people," he said.

"The further decline of the city's efficiencies gives the state more reason to interfere. It's a recipe for increased state intervention."

City Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown, a longtime proponent of the job cuts, has called for a better use of technology and training so services are delivered in a more efficient way. He believes there are enough people to deliver services, but services must be prioritized and employees properly managed.

The city needs to revamp "every department in city government on top of prioritizing the services (the city) is going to deliver," Brown said. "We're not shedding bodies because we want to; we're shedding bodies because we have to. We need to restructure our departmental functions and their processes so they will be able to deliver service with less people. We have to figure out how to deliver it more efficiently."

Meanwhile, city union leaders in Detroit continue to bristle over the Bing administration's decision not to implement tentative concessions approved last spring they say would have saved some $180 million.

The deal included hiring about 90 employees who would go after uncollected revenue owed to Detroit. It included about $28 million in parking and traffic tickets. Union leaders said about $80 million is outstanding in other areas, including false burglar alarms and code and blight violations.

Bing recently announced an initiative to go after uncollected revenue without hiring union workers. The proposal included creating an amnesty program for delinquent income tax debtors and recouping more unpaid city fees.

'A retaliatory mayor'

Most of the ideas had been part of the tentative agreements with the unions. The proposals were never implemented and city and state leaders decided to impose contracts under the terms of the consent agreement.

"I don't want to even respond to (Bing's) threats of layoffs," said Catherine Phillips, lead negotiator for AFSCME, the city's largest union.

"He's going to lay off anyway. He's a retaliatory mayor. This is a dictatorship from Lansing to Detroit. Folks ought to be pressuring him (to ask) what happened to the $180 million in savings. Why are you not dealing with that?"

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