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Jeannette considering furloughs that would slash police department

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 12:08 a.m.

By early March, Jeannette residents will have fewer police officers on streets, less road maintenance work and fewer employees at city hall.

“Monday, we definitely will have layoff notifications going out,” Mayor Robert Carter said.

As the city of 9,600 people grapples with ways to halt a financial spiral toward municipal bankruptcy, officials are resorting to layoffs to avoid being declared a distressed city that would put local government under state oversight. Officials want to avoid bankruptcy, which would automatically categorize Jeannette as distressed.

Carter said tentative plans are to lay off four full-time police officers and three part-timers. The force consists of a chief, 12 full-time officers and three part-time. One or two street workers and some secretaries also will be furloughed, he said.

“My biggest thing is I need to get some answers from the FOP,” the mayor said.

The Fraternal Order of Police met on Friday. The Teamsters had not responded to him by Friday afternoon, and a union representative for the secretaries was off Friday.

“No one's getting back in a timely fashion, as usual,” Carter said.

Carter said pay for on-call firefighters may be reduced from $7.25 an hour.

Contracts require written notification before layoffs can take place, he said.

Friday was the deadline for the city's unions to respond to his challenge to come up with ways to reduce spending. Carter asked them to consider rolling layoffs, with employees working for two weeks and off for two weeks. He asked them to consider voluntary retirement, but “I don't look for anybody to jump on that bandwagon.”

The police department is the biggest drain on the city's budget, costing taxpayers $1.9 million for a police force and annual six-figure contributions to the police pension fund. Jeannette failed to make a $350,000 pension payment last year and must pay $546,000 this year.

Carter said the city has fielded a paid fire department since 1914 and currently employs three professional firefighters. The state in 2010 recommended the city cut the force to one.

On-call firemen cover overnight shifts and supplement the paid force during emergencies. Carter said the city has 33 registered on-call firefighters out of 60 slots, but an average of only five respond to calls.

Carter said it would be difficult for the city to field an all-volunteer fire department because neighboring departments complain they have trouble finding volunteers to man crews. City council is unsure whether to reduce the number of paid firemen, which was cut from seven to three over the years.

The state requires a referendum before a municipality can abolish a paid department. If the city reduces the force to one or two, Carter said, under the law the department would be considered all-volunteer.

“Does that make it volunteer and require a referendum?” he asked.

The city ended 2012 with a $250,000 budget deficit. In addition to overdue pension payments, it needs another $235,000 to settle a court judgment involving a city businessman and his attorney.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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