By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
TAYLOR — The clock is ticking and city officials face the possibility of falling under the supervision of state financial management. That message was delivered loud and clear during a Jan. 21 audit review by Carl Johnson, a partner with Plante and Moran and pre-emergency management troubleshooter.
“He laid it on the table,” City Council Chair Cheryl Burke said. “Here’s what’s going to happen; you’re not going to like it.”
City officials have until Feb. 17 to submit a debt-reduction strategy to the state, a five-year plan to erase a growing budget deficit. Failing to do so will likely initiate the state assigning an Emergency Financial Management team to bring Taylor’s finances in order.
The picture painted during the audit offered little reason to believe that won’t happen. The report showed a $1.7 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 2011, a figure that doesn’t take into account a Dec. 30 state ruling in favor of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1252 that the city must restore the employment of 15 firefighters — to include back pay — laid off last year.
As of Friday, the firefighters had not been called back to duty, and Burke said it’s unlikely they will be any time soon. Along with the deficit addition for salaries, the back pay was reportedly estimated as adding another $470,000 to the shortfall.
Burke said City Council is expected to review budget reduction options during its regular Feb. 7 meeting. Adding to the municipal payroll will not be a likely option.
“The administration is looking at ways to cut everything in the city much more aggressively than they have attempted up to this point,” Burke said. “I don’t see anybody being returned to work or hired at this point; I see a lot more cuts in the future. We have to submit a very aggressive plan to the state.”
Along with ongoing negotiations between the city and fire union, Burke said similar discussions are being held with the Local 1128 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The current contract calls for a minimum of 100 employees; reductions trimmed that total to about 70, Burke said, and a state arbitrator has the option of ruling that the city must restore all 100 positions to the payroll.
As with the fire department, Burke said it’s doubtful that Taylor can afford to meet union-mandated staffing levels.
“The writing’s on the wall,” Burke said. “We won’t be able to have [Advanced Life Support services],” if the 15 firefighter positions are not restored. “ALS is a luxury we can’t afford.”
Fire Chief Bob Tompos presented officials with plans for privatizing emergency services if staffing levels remain as they are. Medical assistance has been part of the Taylor Fire Department since 1999.
If the state moves forward with emergency management, those assigned would have the authority to revisit union contracts for city employees.
“I hope the state can lend us some guidance,” Burke said. “It’s the state’s obligation to protect citizens from financial ruin.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected])