March 11, 2010

City police officers facing layoffs


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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Tuesday, March,31, 2009. Portland police union leaders talk about their vote for wage concessions. From L to R is Sgt. Gary Hutchinson, pres. of the police superior officers benevolent assoc., Det. Scott Dunham, pres. police benevolent assoc., and Det. Sgt. Bob Martin, v.p. of police superior officers assoc. standing in front of the Portland police department.

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — An unspecified number of Portland police officers will be laid off, City Manager Joseph Gray announced Tuesday after the city's police unions voted to reject a one-year wage freeze.

''I will have no choice'' because the city is facing a revenue shortfall of $2.3 million, Gray said at a hastily arranged news conference. He said a citywide pay freeze would close most of the gap.

Leaders of the police unions said Gray is issuing threats rather sitting down with them and negotiating in good faith.

''To me, that is tantamount to union-busting,'' said Detective Scott Dunham, president of the Portland Police Benevolent Association, which represents patrol officers and detectives.

''That's blackmail,'' said Sgt. Gary Hutcheson, president of the Portland Police Superior Officers Benevolent Association, which represents captains, lieutenants and sergeants.

Gray is making the same offer to the city's six other unions: a one-year wage freeze in exchange for a city pledge not to lay off workers who are members of the unions that agree to the deal.

Union leaders for firefighters and emergency dispatchers are recommending that their members also reject the offer.

Leaders of other unions say their members might support the city proposal. They are holding votes over the next two weeks.

Most of the unions are scheduled to receive pay increases of 2.5 percent to 3 percent.

Gray said he also would institute a one-year pay freeze for department heads and employees who aren't represented by unions.

Gray will present his budget proposal to the City Council on Friday. He had asked the unions to give him a reply by Tuesday.

The largest union, the City Employee Benefit Association, which represents nearly 500 workers in several departments, was unable to meet Gray's deadline but probably will give him an answer by Friday, said the union's president, Andy Martin.

Martin said leaders are angry that Gray's proposal has been ''shoved down our throat,'' leaving the group little time for discussion. Still, he believes many of the union's members will be willing to support Gray's deal.

''Overall, my sense is that people would sacrifice a wage increase to save jobs,'' he said.

James Vance, president of the small union that represents people who supervise outdoor laborers, said his members probably will approve the change when they vote next week.

He said the police force and firefighters wield a lot of political clout with the City Council. The city's laborers do not, and are likely to be hit harder by layoffs, Vance said.

He said that happened last year, when seven of the union's 40 members lost their jobs.

This year, the union's executive board has already voted to recommend giving up a 2.5 percent pay increase.

''It was a no-brainer for us,'' Vance said. ''We are going to save all the bodies we can.''

Hutcheson said the concession on pay raises is difficult to accept because of the timing.

On March 18, he said, Gray signed a new contract with his union that calls for a 3 percent pay raise in 2009 and a 2.5 percent raise in 2010.

Two days later, he said, Gray called all the city's union presidents to City Hall to discuss the fiscal 2010 budget.

Hutcheson said Gray told the union leaders that he was planning to lay off 40 people, and that he would lay off a ''moderate'' number of additional people unless the unions agreed to the pay concessions. Gray also presented the option of taking five furlough days, Hutcheson said.

The sergeant said on Monday, Gray sent the unions a letter stating that they'd face layoffs if they did not agree to a one-year pay freeze. The furlough option was no longer offered.

Hutcheson said his union was willing to negotiate changes to its contract, but would have preferred to do so during contract negotiations.

''To put us in the position of asking our members to return raises before the ink dries on our contract is at the least frustrating,'' Hutcheson said in a letter he sent Tuesday to the City Council.

Gray said that previous estimates on job cuts are no longer valid because the budget is still being put together and revenue projections are a moving target.

Non-property tax revenue, such as building permit fees and the excise tax, is plummeting, he said. And property taxes account for only 35 percent of city revenue.

Gray also said that because each of the unions is at a different contract stage, it's more equitable to discuss the issue outside the normal collective bargaining process, so every group can be treated the same.

He said he began talking with union leaders in mid-February about the budget challenges. If the police unions want to reconsider their position, Gray said his door will remain open throughout April, as the council takes up the budget.

Given the state of the economy and the concessions that unions are making in other Maine municipalities, it is appropriate for Gray to talk to unions about concessions, said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who chairs the council's Finance Committee.

Councilor David Marshall, who has been a strong advocate for the city's police force, said Portland cannot afford to burden taxpayers with a tax increase during a recession.

''It comes down to services or taxes,'' he said. ''And it looks like we will have to cut back on services, which means personnel.''

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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