Local Government and Politics, News, Police/Fire

Lynn Police chief warns city council that public safety hangs in the balance with budget constraints

LYNN — Lynn Police Chief Michael Mageary said he understands the city’s financial difficulties, but warned the City Council that if his staffing levels continue to be limited by budgeting constraints, that could lead to a public safety crisis in the future.

“I completely understand the financial issues that the city is facing, but I think it’s time we let everyone know where we are and what our issue is,” Mageary told the council during the first night of budget hearings. “There’s a coming crisis.

“Upon the retirees, in the next two years, three years, you’re going to see 20 or 30 additional officers retire from this department. While we understand and accept the budget we have, these are the issues that we’re going to have going forward and if we don’t address them very quickly, we’re going to have a major problem.”

Mageary and other department heads reported on their respective budgets on Tuesday night on the heels of Mayor Thomas M. McGee submitting a $367.93 million fiscal year 2020 city budget to the council.

Mageary told councilors the department’s staffing goal is 195 officers, but their current level is 168. But with nine expected retirements and two promotions planned for July and August, those levels will decrease to 159.

Despite those numbers, Mageary said crime is down 30 percent in the last 24 months, which includes a 77 percent reduction in homicides from 2017 and a 21 percent reduction in gun violence from 2018. In addition, there has been a 22 percent reduction in overdose deaths.

But Mageary pointed to the Union Street brawl two weeks ago, which the department didn’t have the manpower to handle on its own and had to call for backup from six neighboring departments, along with State Police.

“The officers in this department do tremendous work, but based on our manpower issues, they are emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted,” Mageary said. “They are burned out and we need to help them.”

The city authorized hiring 19 additional officers last year, 10 to replace officers who retired or transferred and nine through a COPS grant. When new hires graduate from the academy in August or October, there will be 176 officers, still shy of the department’s goal.

City officials estimated it would cost about $2 million to bring the force up to 195 officers, when considering a base salary of $67,000 plus benefits.

Fire Chief Stephen Archer said his department’s budget is tight, but considering the city’s fiscal position, “it is what it is.” He said there are no layoffs and pointed to the 20 new hires the department recently made, which was paid for through a Staffing for Adequate & Fire Emergency Response (SAFER) federal grant.

“We’re committed to living within the budget and hopefully providing adequate service,” Archer said.

Christopher Gaeta, director of assessing, said his department doesn’t have any field assessors. Over the last decade, the position was cut from three people out in the field daily to zero. In addition, one of the department’s clerks moved over to purchasing, creating a vacancy. He requested that clerical position be replaced with a field assessor.

Having staff out in the field inspecting and doing assessments, along with using technology, is necessary to bring additional revenue to the city through new growth beyond the constraints of Proposition 2½, Gaeta said.

“We’re doing the best we can right now with the staff we have,” Gaeta said.

Despite a projected $5 million budget deficit for FY2020, Chief Financial Officer Michael Bertino said the city’s proposed budget is balanced, but doesn’t factor in potential raises that could come through ongoing union contract negotiations.

Bertino said the city was able to close that gap by not filling $400,000 to $500,000 worth of open positions, leaving many city departments with vacancies, a significant increase in anticipated Chapter 70 funding, the major program of state aid to public schools — the proposed Senate budget shows that increase could be $18.15 million more than last year’s budget — and not underfunding its healthcare trust deficits as it had been in past years, which saved between $600,000 and $700,000.

Still, he said capital investment is low and the budget doesn’t account for potential raises from about a dozen unions in contract negotiations with the city.

City Councilor-at-Large Buzzy Barton said he didn’t think the city should put a budget in until officials know what those raises are.

“We can’t give what we don’t have,” Bertino said. “We were fortunate to close the $5 million gap, but unless you want to support laying off people to give out raises, we don’t have the money. When we present those contracts to the council, the question would be how are you going to support it (or fund it)?”

Budget hearings will continue on May 28.

 

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