By THOMAS GRILLO
LYNN — On the heels of a bruising school election where voters overwhelmingly rejected a tax increase, the city faces the prospect of layoffs to erase a budget deficit.
Mayor Judith Flanagan has instructed department heads to level fund their fiscal year 2018 budget which begins on July 1. In addition, the email to senior managers asked them to “be creative” in absorbing a 5 percent retroactive raise to city employees and another 2 percent increase set to take effect this summer.
The city is short by $8 million — the combination of a $4 million deficit in the fiscal year 2017 budget and an additional $4 million in raises for 2018. Some departments face as much as 8.5 percent in cuts while others will have a much lower threshold.
“In order to maintain the current level of operation, the city must address the $4 million deficit from last year and up to $4 million in new salaries due to contract settlements,” said Peter Caron, the city’s chief financial officer. “To do so, the city needs to either find new revenue or reduce spending.”
Despite the cash crunch, the mayor insists Lynn is not in the midst of a financial crisis.
“To level fund the budget, accommodate the recent raises and increases in fixed costs, such as pensions and healthcare, we asked everyone to submit an initial budget with an 8 percent spending cut,” she said. “But this is just an initial step, we start at the bottom and build the budget up from there. I can’t speculate on layoffs right now, but we have some pretty big fixed costs that must be met.”
Still, it appears contract settlements with police, fire and other city employees has exacerbated the cash-strapped city’s ability to maintain its nearly $300 million budget without cuts. Some department heads say layoffs and service cutbacks may be inevitable. The schools will not be affected by the cuts.
The $3.7 million payroll at the Department of Public Works must be trimmed by nearly $262,000, the potential loss of about three workers from the 50-person unit.
“Trying to do the same amount of work with less money is always a challenge,” said Andrew Hall, commissioner.
Hall said one of his workers is collecting worker’s compensation as a result of an injury on the job. If that person does not return to work, the city would not fill the position.
“I’m trying to avoid any layoffs,” he said. “It’s possible we could absorb work done by one of our contractors, but it may not be enough to avoid layoffs.”
In the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD), they are looking at a $400,000 cut from its $6.8 million personnel budget or as many as eight positions from the department which employs 30 workers.
Michael Donovan, ISD’s director, said his agency has three vacant positions that will go unfilled, there is the possibility of employees retiring, and there’s potential savings of up to $50,000 if the city defers scheduled improvements to city buildings.
“Even with those savings, I am looking at four more positions to trim,” he said. “If inspectors or clerical staff are laid off, it will impact the operations. This is serious. Our budget is so lean right now to cut back on personnel will lead to lower services.”
Police Chief Michael Mageary said it is too soon to say how the latest cuts will affect his department. Last year, they downsized to six patrol cars with two officers in each, down from six, one-person patrol cars and four, two-person cars.
“We are already running lean,” he said. “We have two officers less per division on the street right now.”
Cuts in the Personnel Department could lead to trimming one position, according to Joseph Driscoll, director. His $251,000 budget consists of three salaries and less than $5,000 in expenses.
“I understand the financial crisis the city is in,” said Driscoll. “I will do what the mayor and the chief financial officer ask me to do, as painful as it may be.”
Fire Chief James McDonald said he’s hoping not to lay off anyone, but can’t guarantee it. He is looking at cutting $1.3 million from the department’s $16.6 million payroll.
“It will have a bad effect on us,” he said. “We do not have a lot of money to roll into payroll. There’s a chance a firefighter could be laid off.”
While McDonald has 17 unfilled firefighter jobs, he has been using some of that money to pay for overtime.
If the city lacks sufficient firefighters on a shift, he said they can put that company out of service in what’s called a “brownout.” That’s where engines are removed from service when available staffing is thin.
“It’s Russian roulette,” he said. “We take them out for a day or night and hope nothing happens. That’s what happened in Holyoke on New Year’s Day. They had a fatal fire, there was a brownout and three people died.”
Thomas Grillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.