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Providence Budget: What’s on the Chopping Block?

Thursday, March 03, 2011


As Providence confronts the worst deficits it has faced in decades, where can Mayor Angel Taveras make the deep cuts in the city budget he needs—and where are his options limited?

Sources are telling GoLocalProv that the city union facing the most serious cuts is Local 1033 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America—which represents virtually every city worker who is not a firefighter, police officer, or certified teacher. As many as 900 city workers are in the union—everyone from school crossing guards and zoo keepers to snow plow drivers and emergency dispatchers.

The total cost of four of the larger departments where they work—Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Building, and Public Property—adds up to an estimated $54.5 million in the 2010. And that’s not counting a bunch of smaller departments in City Hall with budgets in the $1 million to $2 million range.

Sources: city workers most vulnerable

Compared to fire and police, city workers are more vulnerable to layoffs, according to a labor attorney familiar with the situation. For one thing, police and fire are already understaffed. The Fire Department, for example, is down an estimated 40 firefighters and there are roughly 20 fewer police officers than the city says it needs. Further cuts to the firefighters would boost overtime costs—which are already nearing an unusually high $9 million. Meanwhile, police overtime costs are on the rise too, reaching $5 million last year.

The current Local 1033 contract does allow layoffs, but it bars the city from laying off more 10 percent of its workforce, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by GoLocalProv.

However, Taveras has clearly signaled that he is not adverse to terminating employees, as opposed to laying them off, as he did last week with all city teachers. In order to terminate members of Local 1033, Taveras would need to demonstrate cause for the firings, according to the city Personnel Department—but the city certainly didn’t see that as an obstacle in the case of the teachers.

The head of Local 1033 yesterday declined to comment on possible layoffs or terminations. “We’ve developed a good relationship with the administration and we hope to continue that relationship,” said President Vicki Virgilio. “We’re going to meet with the city and jointly come up with solutions to the huge budget deficits.”

Joe Rodio, the attorney for the police union, said it is also committed to helping the city save money. “We’re going to assist the city in whatever manner we can,” Rodio said. “We have to walk a balance between not hurting our members and recognizing this is a real problem.”

Council leader: concessions, layoffs in the works

City Council President Michael Solomon said the cuts won’t necessarily be targeted to any one area of the budget. “I don’t think you could specifically say one entity. Everything’s on the table—union concessions, budget cuts, employment layoffs,” Solomon said.

Sources say that city unions are willing to make concessions up to a point. But what happens after that is unclear. In a worst-case scenario, the city could even hold the threat of bankruptcy over their heads in order to gain more concessions, one labor attorney said.

But the city has other options beyond squeezing as much money as it can out of its various unions, the attorney added. Those options include everything from revoking the tax exempt status of mammoth nonprofit institutions like Brown University and Lifespan to bonding the anticipated tax revenue from the redevelopment of the old Interstate 195 land—something which could quickly net millions of dollars for a cash-strapped city.

Official: get rid of unnecessary departments

In an interview yesterday, Councilman Kevin Jackson offered his own take on where the city should be cutting. “You have to look at everything top down,” Jackson said. He said those earning the most—with salaries in the six figure range—should absorb the most cuts. He said the city also should look at eliminating certain departments.

For example, he thinks the Housing Court, which cost $400,000 in 2010, should be eliminated and all its cases transferred to one judge in the Municipal Court. Jackson also thinks the city should ax ProvStat—which collects and analyzes city data. “Do you know any taxpayer that knows anything ProvStat puts out?” Jackson said. “What effect do they have?”


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