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City lays off record number of workers

Mayor to pink slip 731, including police; close pools and drain savings account

Thursday, August 07, 2003

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mayor Tom Murphy announced yesterday that he is laying off 731 city workers, closing a police station and spending nearly all of the city's $28 million savings account to hold off bankruptcy for the rest of the year.

Confirmation of layoff rumors generated an immediate repsonse yesterday as Pittsburgh crossing guard Cathy Gamble led about 65 other guards in a march around the City-County Building after Mayor Tom Murphy said they would be among hundreds of city workers who will be laid off. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

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Murphy said he hated making those decisions, but was forced to because of the state Legislature's inaction on his proposals to offset a $60 million budget deficit with new taxes and state aid.

"While I believe these cuts are necessary, I hate doing this," Murphy said, his voice breaking and his eyes moist during a news conference in his office yesterday.

"I hate having to do this because it affects the quality of life of the city and its neighborhoods. I hate it because of what it means to the lives of very hard-working men and women who work for the city of Pittsburgh, who come to work every day -- good friends of mine.

"These cuts are difficult and painful for our city and for our community."

In addition to the 731 layoffs, another 113 vacant positions will be left unfilled.

The estimated net savings from the cuts -- after paying for unemployment insurance, benefits and the like -- is $6.5 million.

Murphy also is closing 26 swimming pools as of tomorrow, and leaving six regional pools open through Labor Day; closing four senior centers and leaving 13 open; and closing all 19 of the city's recreation centers, where sports, arts and community events are staged. Closing the facilities themselves will not save much money; the savings comes from cutting staff.

Since 102 police officers will be laid off, Murphy said, others will be shifted away from large city events to work in neighborhood police stations. That means no officers will direct traffic at football games or community parades, he said, and some large public events will be canceled, including the 26-year-old Richard S. Caliguiri Great Race on Sept. 28.

The layoffs of the police, 203 crossing guards and roughly 200 lifeguards makes up nearly 70 percent of all the furloughs.

The only main city government operations avoiding the ax completely are the controller's office, City Council, the city clerk, emergency operations and the Fire Bureau.

Paying firefighters takes up 14 percent of the 2003 budget, but they are shielded from layoffs by minimum equipment and staffing language in their contract. Although the contract doesn't specifically say there can be no layoffs, it does specify how many pieces of various firefighting equipment the city must have in operation. State law spells out how many firefighters must be assigned to each machine.

Fire union President Joseph King said proposals could be announced by late this month to cut six to eight vehicles out of the 55-vehicle fire fleet, resulting in a reduction in the number of firefighters.

Murphy extended the firefighters' layoff protections in 1999 and again in 2001, on the eve of the Democratic mayoral primary.

Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy listens as city solicitor Jacqueline Morrow explains a legal issue during a press conference where the mayor announced the city was laying off 731 employees, closing a police station, 27 pools, 19 recreation centers and four senior centers. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Yesterday's layoffs, which come in Murphy's 10th year in office, are unprecedented.

Murphy laid off 95 employees in his first year in office in 1994 and former Mayor Sophie Masloff laid off 82 workers in 1991. But there were more than 5,000 city employees back then.

Before yesterday, there were 4,350 employees working, so yesterday's 731 cuts represented 16.8 percent of the work force, or one in every six workers.

Murphy's $386 million 2003 budget was balanced on the hope that a $60 million hole could be filled with state approval of a new 0.5 percent payroll tax on city employers, a 10 percent tax on alcoholic drinks and $12 million in pension aid.

Lately, with the assistance of city business leaders, Murphy changed that request to a $52 tax on city workers, up from the $10 tax last increased in 1965; a 0.45 payroll tax on for-profit organizations; and the pension aid. In exchange, he promised to lower business privilege and mercantile taxes and to let a fiscal oversight board review city budgets.

The legislation was never formally introduced to the General Assembly, and an ongoing stalemate between the Legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell on other statewide budget issues has left the city legislation languishing.

By saving $6.5 million in layoffs and breaking the piggy bank of the $28 million fund balance, the city will be able to avoid bankruptcy and pay its personnel and debt service payments the rest of the year. Murphy acknowledged that could hurt the city's standing with bond rating agencies. Bond ratings are a sign of financial well-being and affect borrowing rates.

"These cuts have nothing to do with fat, they have everything to do with the fact that we are running out of cash," Murphy said.

The mayor said the cuts went far deeper than just cutting fat. He said he was forced to "cut every function that we are not legally obliged to do or obliged by the necessity of basic public safety to do."

Sticking to the script he has repeated all year, Murphy avoided criticizing state legislators, saying their approval of his budget proposals would make the city's tax system fairer, not more burdensome. In some ways he almost downplayed the city's bad budget situation.

"We are a pawn really in a much larger game that is being played in Harrisburg," Murphy said, referring to the budget stalemate between Senate Republicans and Rendell.

Murphy has long had prickly relations with some state legislators, but he also downplayed that factor in the city's budget woes.

"Hundreds of agencies are at risk right now. We are one of many. I don't believe we have any personality crises causing this. On the contrary, we have worked very hard to make a case with the Legislature," he said.

At a Station Square news conference, Rendell supported Murphy, a longtime ally.

"We should give the mayor and the City Council the right to do what they feel is necessary. ... All we are doing is passing enabling legislation. The mayor and City Council still must approve it," Rendell said.


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

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