Imagine going to work in the same place for 40 years, and then one day looking up to see your boss standing before you waiting to deliver a message: You have just minutes to pack up and leave.

That’s exactly what happened to David Gaudet, who until last Tuesday had spent his entire adult life working for the South Portland Public Works Department. Now at 63, just two years from retirement, he has severance pay for his years of service, a month of health insurance and no idea what he’s going to do.

Gaudet’s situation is, unfortunately, not unique. He was one of five longtime city employees laid off in South Portland last week. The town of Sanford laid off several employees last week, as well, including a deputy police chief who had been working there for 38 years. The city of Westbrook laid off nine employees in January. Windham may be forced to follow suit, and Cape Elizabeth is considering closing a dispatch center and laying off the four dispatchers who work there.

Facing steep declines in revenues from excise taxes, building permits and state revenue sharing, town and city managers are being forced to look at freezing wages and laying off employees to match the expectations of locally elected representatives, who in many cases are asking to avoid tax increases, given the state of the economy.

While avoiding tax increases makes sense, for good or ill, government has traditionally been considered a stable base of employment, and that base may be more important now than ever. As towns and cities work through their budgets this spring, layoffs should be a last resort, after cuts to services and wage freezes.

Governments, after all, are different from the private sector. Their revenues, although clearly affected by the economy, are much more stable than those in the private sector, particularly local governments, which rely heavily on property taxes. Paying property taxes is not optional, and they don’t take a dive with the economy, like income and sales taxes do.

The economy is struggling because many people are fearful and are saving money rather than spending it on the goods companies in the private sector are producing. While some of that may be a healthy readjustment after years of spending beyond our means, pulling back too much will hurt everyone in the long run. And, we need to do everything we can to avoid a downward spiral. Gaudet and the other employees who were laid off last week, for example, will probably not be spending much money anytime soon.

There are, unfortunately, not many good choices, but almost any are preferable to laying people off. Those choices might include reducing the hours at public libraries and the number of programs offered in recreation programs, cutting bulky waste disposal programs, freezing wages and moderate tax increases of 3 to 4 percent. In the end, all of these measures and more may not be enough to avoid laying people off. But right now, if there’s any way to avoid it, almost anything is preferable to dumping more people into a growing pool of unemployed workers.

Brendan Moran, editor


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