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Ax falls on 551 city employees

Saturday, August 16, 2003

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Layoffs and protests continued on Grant Street yesterday, as the Murphy administration formally notified hundreds of city personnel that they are losing their jobs.

 
 

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Many of the 551 cuts were in the Public Works Department, which will affect garbage and litter collection, street and park cleaning, trail and step construction and other core government services. City recreation centers run by the Parks Department were shuttered when 77 workers were cut, suspending many neighborhood athletic and education programs.

At Public Works, 42 employees were laid off, many of them laborers, to be followed in October by up to 20 refuse workers, though that could be decreased by retirements.

Twenty-one emergency medical technicians got pink slips, according to their union president, while a handful avoided layoffs by being promoted to paramedics.

"Response times are going to go up" without the EMTs, warned paramedics union president Jeffrey Vesci. "People are going to get killed."

Vesci said his union would not participate in talks with the administration and the firefighters union over merging the fire and medic bureaus until the EMT jobs are restored. The merger is supposed to save $15 million annually.

The Parks Department laid off 168 lifeguards in addition to the 77 recreation center workers. City Planning laid off eight, including an assistant planning director. Engineering & Construction laid off eight, including architects and engineers. The mayor's office cut seven, including its development-policy coordinator.

Other cuts included 198 crossing guards; seven people in the Personnel Department, mostly custodians; and 14 General Service workers, including painters and body shop specialists.

The 551 were part of the 731 layoffs Mayor Tom Murphy announced last week due to the city's budget crisis. They were given packets with letters notifying them of the cuts and information on health benefits and unemployment assistance.

"I am taking this action purely for economic reasons," read the letter paramedics chief Doug Garretson wrote to the EMTs. "My decision is not in any way related to your performance or your value as our employee. The city must reduce its workforce to reduce costs."

For many of those who were laid off, yesterday was their last day at work. But most employees will get their last paycheck Sept. 1 and receive city health benefits through that month.

Public Works Director Guy Costa called the cuts, which he announced in meetings with employees this morning, "deep and painful" and would lead to a wholesale restructuring of his department. The department is the third biggest in city government, after the police and fire bureaus.

Plans are under way to cut the pickup of bulk items (such as old furniture) from twice to once monthly; to cut the frequency of litter pickup and street sweeping; cut down construction of trails, playgrounds and steps; and to rearrange personnel at Public Works division headquarters.

None of the divisions is expected to close.

The city's four regional parks are not expected to suffer, since their maintenance is covered by Regional Asset District tax funds. But the upkeep of local parks such as South Side Riverfront Park, Grandview Park and West Park will be lessened.

Snow removal in the winter is not expected to suffer, Costa said, since truck drivers were not laid off. Some neighborhood salt boxes will be eliminated.

Eliminating events such as the Great Race, run since 1977, will save Public Works time and money since workers will not be setting up the race route and collecting litter before and after the race, as usual.

"It's like setting up a party at your house. You clean up before and you clean up afterwards," Costa said.

About 40 people protested the cuts on the front steps of the City-County Building yesterday morning, led by Lawrenceville activist Sheila Titus.

"It's time for the citizens to get [Downtown] and talk. They're the ones who are going to be hurt by this," Titus said.

"I hope Murphy doesn't need a medic or a cop or somebody to come to him."

Like other protests over the past nine days, police blocked a lane of traffic in front of the main city government building, and other police and EMTs driving by the scene blared their emergency horns and sirens in solidarity.

Protesters also circulated petitions to impeach Murphy, citing mismanagement of the city budget.

The signatures will eventually be filed in Common Pleas Court, as directed by the city charter, organizer Jim Genco of Lawrenceville said.

Grounds for impeachment under the 1974 charter include "mental incapacity, incompetency neglect of duty, malfeasance, mismanagement or for any corrupt act or practice."

But several hurdles stand in the way of an impeachment proceeding.

It starts with at least 20 city residents of voting age filing a petition in court.

If a judge deems the complaints reasonable, a citizen investigating committee will be named to make a written report to the court.

If that committee finds the complaints well-founded, City Council sits as an impeachment jury with Common Pleas Court President Judge Robert Kelly presiding. Normally city Solicitor Jacqueline Morrow would act as prosecuting attorney, but since she works for the mayor, the city controller's solicitor, David Armstrong, would be the prosecutor.

If the mayor is found guilty of any of the charges, the court would declare the office vacant and City Council President Gene Ricciardi would become mayor.


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.

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