HAVERHILL — It's a familiar and frustrating story, especially for city workers.
Mayor James Fiorentini told the City Council last week that he is projecting a multimillion dollar budget shortfall next year, and he expects the city's depleted workforce will have to be cut further to balance the books.
The mayor gave the council the budget update ahead of his proposal to offer early retirement to up to 10 employees. The retirement incentive is a one-time offer to cities and towns authorized by the state Legislature earlier this year.
"I'm against allowing early retirement in general, but I decided to offer it once I saw our budget projections and realized it's either early retirement or layoffs," Fiorentini said. "I figured this way we can let go workers at the high end of the pay scale rather than new workers at the lower end."
He said he is allowed to "pick and choose" which employees may take the incentive, although it is only available to those with 20 or more years of service.
Those workers who the mayor deems as providing a critical service will not be allowed to retire under the program, Fiorentini said. No police officers, firefighters or teachers will be allowed to take the incentive either, he said.
"The long-term way to help cities under the new reality of reduced state aid and less money is to reduce the workforce so we can reduce our health care and pension costs," he said. "The way to do that is by cutting workers and privatizing and outsourcing services."
The mayor said next year's projected deficit is primarily the result of rising health care and pension costs and an anticipated state aid cut of up to 10 percent.
Information provided to the council shows the mayor will offer early retirement to: two clerks in the finance division; one inspector; one clerk in the Fire Department; two part-time library aides; one worker at the citizens center; two workers in the Water Department; and two other workers from departments that were not identified. The combined salaries of those workers to be let go is $459,878, according to the information.
The rules for the incentive say the city may use up to 30 percent of money saved to replace workers who retire early. Fiorentini said he will likely bring back several of those let go as part-time workers at 30 percent of their current pay.
The proposal cannot be adopted without City Council approval, and several councilors expressed concerns about eliminating 10 workers from City Hall, which has borne the brunt of spending cuts in recent years. The city's workforce has fallen from 350 workers in 2007 to 299 today, according to information provided by the mayor.
"I'm not comfortable with losing more employees with departments already down so many people," City Councilor William Macek said.
Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O'Brien also raised concerns about eliminating workers.
"My big concern is these cuts are at City Hall and they can't take it anymore," she said. "And those department heads aren't here tonight to tell us if they can get by with these cuts."
Fiorentini claimed the council had to approve or reject the proposal at Tuesday's meeting, despite the fact that it was the first time many councilors had heard about it.
"Once again, you've put the gun to our head," Macek said.
Councilor David Hall also said he would not vote without being given time to research the potential impacts of the proposal on his own.
"It's not proper to ask us to decide this without being given time to look up the figures and get more information," he said.
City Council President Michael Hart noted that while Fiorentini's information showed how much money the early retirement incentive would save, the mayor did not provide information about costs, such as pension costs for those workers who retire early.
"My gut tells my this is the right thing to do," Councilor Sven Amirian said. "But I'm also concerned about the continual cutting and rushing to do this tonight."
After debating the proposal, Macek, Hart and other councilors said they were sure rules for the program allowed the council to take time to research the impacts before voting. The council voted unanimously to delay voting on the proposal until its Nov. 30 meeting.
Hart also asked the mayor to identify by name which workers will retire if the council approves the measure.
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