ITHACA, N.Y. — The City of Ithaca Common Council labored through a bleak special meeting Wednesday evening, dealing deep cuts across city departments in response to falling revenue projections due to the novel coronavirus.
The meeting, stretching on for more than two hours, follows a closed-door meeting of the council on Tuesday night of similar length. Council, with some members seemingly resistant to the scope and scale of the deficit the city faces, eventually passed all three resolutions — with one minor amendment.
“I don’t want to sugar coat this plan,” said Myrick, explaining that the layoffs being proposed are not of people who are already sitting at home because their job cannot be done remotely.
“That’s really not the case. In order to close this deficit, in order to save $5.4 million, we will have to furlough people who are working now,” said Myrick. “This will be the largest reduction of city services in the city’s history. It is really weighted towards youth service programming, right now.”
Myrick made clear that while youth services are bearing the brunt of the cuts due in large part because of the uncertainty around programming and if health regulations would even allow for programming, that staff would be re-evaluating weekly whether or not youth program might be able to move forward in some capacity — allowing some of those employees to be recalled.
“We recognize that right now, we can’t plan for our summer programming, given all the uncertainty around both the virus and our budget shortfalls. There are two twin uncertainties that together mean we’re unable to plan for the programming,” the mayor said. “If say, the federal government comes through with an aid package that’s commensurate with our needs, and-or the virus recedes to a place where we are comfortable opening the pools, the playgrounds, the basketball courts and holding summer camp programming, then we can unwind these furloughs to offer summer programming for young people in a modified form.”
The first of the three resolutions before the council granted the mayor and City Comptroller Steve Thayer the authority “to take the steps necessary to cut city expenses by $5.4 million, including through the furloughing of up to 90 city employees, and to make appropriate modifications to any fund in the city budget to account for these changes, resulting in the defunding of numerous rostered positions across all departments of the city.”
“I’d like to move that we recall the three firefighters that are currently in the academy, the academy has been paused, when they rejoin the academy, they will be recalled from furlough,” said Alderperson Laura Lewis. “I would like to move that we recall those three firefighters from furlough when there are retirements in the department.”
Myrick agreed, saying that he had planned on recalling them like that, but the motion amended the resolution to mandate that, after graduating from the academy, the city would recall them as soon as there was a vacancy created by a retirement, which Lewis said the fire department expected in the near future.
Alderpersons continued to look for ways to keep the three recruits active, with George McGonigal suggesting that the city retain the recruits to help fill gaps in the case of an injury to current firefighters.
With nearly an hour passing, debating and amending the first resolution, Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff, who also chairs the city’s budget committee, wanted to make it clear that this is not a budget process, and that council would not be able to negotiate in attempts to find a balance that makes all parties feel good, but rather council was taking early and decisive action so that it may make the process of recalling employees back easier.
“This is an unprecedented financial crisis that the city is facing and I think as much as we want to figure out how to balance this out the best that we can, I think doing it in this way, by doing this as a package and seeing the reality of what happens down the road, I think a point the mayor made last night was a good one,” said Mohlenhoff. “We want to do this, this way — now, in a worst way — instead of maybe as other communities may be looking at this, they do a little bit now and then realize maybe it wasn’t enough…this way, it might actually be easier for us to figure out how to bring everybody back.”
The amendment passed 9-0, with Alderperson Seph Murtagh recusing himself because the firefighters union had endorsed his campaign for New York State Assembly District 125.
The resolution passed unanimously, 10 to 0.
“I’ve never put anything like that before this council before. I hope to never have to again. The letters that I have to sign now, and the people we’ve informed already, have been the hardest parts of my professional career,” said a visibly troubled Myrick. “But the seriousness with which you’ve taken these decisions…I think you’ve done the city a service. I think future councils will be grateful for what you’ve done. I believe, in time, our employees will see that what you’ve done here was wise in the long run and I hope the public see as well that they have a group of leaders in the ten of you that are in it for the right reasons.”
The second resolution, which restructured health insurance benefits for employees who are not members of a bargaining unit, allowing laid-off management and confidential employees — as well as the mayor and council — to continue to carry health insurance with the city paying 80%of the cost.
“I’m a little uncomfortable with this, the out of pocket costs are higher and if you go out of network, you are going to be paying more for this plan…I’m a little conflicted,” said Murtagh of the change.
Alderperson Donna Fleming clarified that the resolution would not kick employees off the plan that they want, but rather limit how much the city would kick in towards the plan, stopping at 80% of the cost fo the platinum plan.
After a comparison of plans and council seeming to grow increasingly uncomfortable with the move, city Chief of Staff Dan Cogan offered some perspective.
“Anything that we do to save money is going to have an impact on something or someone. There’s really no way for the city to save money that doesn’t affect someone,” said Cogan. “I think we are all going to have to get used to that idea…there’s really no way to save millions of dollars without cutting.”
The resolution passed 7-3, with Alderpersons Brock, McGonigal and Murtagh voting against it.
The third resolution repealed item 8.14 of the December 4, 2019 Common Council meeting that approved raises for managerial staff and council, as well as eliminated the cashing out of leave time for managerial employees for 2020. Employees will still be able to carry over 40 days of leave time, but will not be able to cash out that time at the end of the year.
Mayor Myrick opened the conversation about the resolution by pointing out that several members of Common Council have donated a percentage of their annual salary, up to 100%, back to the city.
Members of council wondered if there was a way they could avoid depriving some employees of leave time that they had earned, particularly managerial employees that were already losing a raise and potential changes to their health insurance. Alderperson Cynthia Brock proposed amending the resolution to allow employees to carry over all their accrued time to 2021.
“I’m very mindful of the sacrifices that our managerial staff are making and the inability to roll over additional hours that you might have accrued because of your work, just seems like another thing that is painful and if we can avoid it, we should. People had no idea this was coming,” said Brock.
Myrick, worrying aloud that he was running out of ways to say the same thing, reiterated that none of the proposals being made are desirable.
“What I am proposing is bad, It’s not what you want to do and the only reason I would propose it is if we needed to save a ton of money very quickly. We need to save a ton of money quickly.”
The resolution passed unanimously.
A committee will meet on a weekly basis to evaluate the recall of employees. Any increase in monthly spending greater than $200,000 would have to return to council for approval.
Myrick took to Facebook this morning to give further details on exactly what his plan entails.
“Effective May 3 staff in the following departments will be furloughed. All affected staff have been notified and, upon execution of the MOU, will receive further materials from Human Resources to aid their transition. All furloughs are intended to be temporary,” the mayor said in a Facebook post.
The mayor also offered approximate numbers of positions lost by each bargaining unit as well as other details on services lost:
Furloughs by Bargaining Unit:
- Confidential: 7 of 20
- CSEA Admin: 62 of 125
- CSEA DPW: 11 of 96
- Exec Unit: 1 of 18
- IPFFA & COU: 3 of 62
- Management: 3 of 33
- PBA: 0 of 58
Furloughs by Department:
- Attorney: 0 of 5
- DPW: 14 of 159
- Finance: 3 of 11
- Fire: 3 of 64
- GIAC: 18 of 25
- HR: 1 of 6
- Mayor: 1 of 2
- PIT: 2 of 8
- Planning/Building: 11 of 26
- Police: 4 of 69
- Youth Bureau: 30 of 37
Unfilled Vacancies by Department:
- Attorney: 1 part-time attorney
- DPW: 13 permanent and 11 seasonal
- Fire: 6 current or future fire-fighters
- GIAC: 5 part-time and all seasonals
- Planning/Building: 3 vacancies
- Police: 6 vacant police officers
- Youth Bureau: 2 full-time and all seasonals
Programmatic Impact of Furloughs:
Youth Services: Summer programming will be suspended indefinitely. Camps, pools, and courts will remain closed until – at the earliest – the New York State Health Department advises that they can be safely opened. Most employees in both GIAC and the Youth Bureau will be furloughed. Those who remain will maintain facilities and plan for the re-opening of regular services. If there is demand – and if the City’s budget can support it – employees may be brought back mid-summer to offer modified programming. That programming could either take the form of virtual participation or, pandemic dependent, in-person activities.
Fire and Police: Overtime costs will increase at times to support recommended minimum staffing levels.
Some budgeted overtime accounts will be underused because of the cancellation of special events (i.e.,Fireworks, downtown festivals, spring and fall party weekends on East and South Hill). Both IPD and IFD will continue to use modified operating procedures to reduce their call load and protect their employees from exposure to COVID-19.
Department of Public Works: Planned infrastructure work (roads, bridges, sidewalks) will continue. The golf course will be closed for the summer unless we believe there will be adequate demand. Mowing in parks and other green spaces will be less frequent.
City Hall: All projects, committees, and plans that are not critical or time-sensitive will be delayed. Management will handle more hands-on administrative tasks. Exterior property maintenance inspections and housing inspections will be delayed. Commissions will have less frequent meetings or may have to provide their own minute taker.