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Mass. City Unions Face Tough Decisions

As Massachusetts cities and towns address sharp revenue cutbacks, many municipal unions are being asked to make a difficult choice — agree to concessions such as wage freezes or even cuts or see many of their members laid off. Some cities, including New Bedford and Fall River, have already made major cuts. And without more union concessions, the mayor of Boston is threatening to cut as many as 700 city workers.

Gov. Deval Patrick has cut New Bedford's local aid by $2 million this year and the city faces another $8 million cut next year. So last month, New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang told police and fire unions that unless they accepted pay cuts, there would be layoffs.

The unions turned the mayor down. The city laid off 31 of its 288 police officers. New Bedford Police Chief Ron Teachman says his department still has more officers than police forces in cities of the same size, but he's had to deplete units that focus on crime prevention in order to staff regular patrols.

RON TEACHMAN: You need to have officers on the street. You need to have them able to be deployed in an emergency, in a crisis, to put them in a day-to-day in what we call the hot spots, but also to have them in every neighborhood so that everyone in the city gets the same level of service.

New Bedford is also losing two of its 14 fire companies.

BRIAN GALLANT: It's going to lengthen response times.

Brian Gallant is visiting firefighter friends in the tiled entrance hall of the huge early-20th -century firehouse that also serves as headquarter. He is among the 35 firefighters who have been laid off.

GALLANT: I'm a third-generation firefighter. My grandfather was on. My father was my captain. I worked with him every day. For me, this is all I ever wanted to do. I never wanted to be anything other than a New Bedford firefighter. It was devastating. It is devastating to lose this job.

The cuts in nearby Fall River are deeper. On Friday, 44 firefighters and 53 police officers expect to lose their jobs. Bill Felandes, a detective in the vice and intelligence unit, sitting with fellow officers in the interview room of the police station, is among those who have been laid off.

BILL FELANDES: And you're taking a third, almost a third of the workforce off the streets. I just want people to know that: a third of the workforce off the streets. So you?re dealing with a majority of the front-line people that respond to calls, that are proactive, that are making lock-ups, that are helping the neighborhoods get rid of gang activity, drug activity.

Mayors across the state are worried that budget cuts are eliminating an entire generation of police officers and firefighters. That was a big concern for Revere's mayor, Tom Ambrosino, as he began negotiations with unions in his city.

MAYOR AMBROSINO: The most recent one hires are the ones that are let go. Those tend to be the younger people, generally, exactly the kind of people you're trying to keep in your community: young families with investments in new homes in the community. And when you're laying those people off, a lot of times, they can no longer afford to continue living in your community, and they're leaving to go elsewhere.

People such as laid-off New Bedford firefighter Brian Gallant.

GALLANT: I bought a house over the summer, in August, and a friend of mine, who bought a house, she got laid off, too.

With the loss of his youngest police officers, New Bedford Police Chief Ron Teachman says he's lost a lot.

TEACHMAN: Given their age, they were very familiar with the offending population, knew them, knew their habits, knew their whereabouts. They could talk to them. So we've lost that. And speaking of talking to that target population, half of the officers we let off were bilingual. So we're losing their Spanish, Portuguese and Creole skills and our ability to talk to the community, especially victims and witnesses.

Union leaders who prefer layoffs to wage concessions have come under criticism from people such as Mark Draisen, the executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

MARK DRAISEN: Very often, the folks who are bargaining on behalf of the public employee unions are the more long-term staff people who have risen higher in the union and sit on those bargaining teams, and some of them are focused mainly on wages and benefits and retirement, and they probably ought to pay a little more attention to what's happening with newer employees who might lose their jobs.

One union that decided it preferred a wage freeze to any layoffs was the Quincy firefighters. They agreed to defer raises for a year in their negotiations with Quincy's mayor, Thomas Koch.

MAYOR KOCH: Of all the unions in the city, the firefighters' clearly has that close brotherhood.

But the firefighters and police officers who have been laid off in New Bedford and Fall River don't believe that brotherhood consists of taking pay cuts to prevent job cuts. Fall River detective Bill Felandes is about to lose his job on Friday:

FELANDES: This was a decision made by 180 patrolmen. That consisted of the 53 guys that were laid off, and not one of those 53 guys said that they would rather take a pay cut and see our benefits and our pay revert back to 10 years ago than being laid off. They said we would take the layoff. Since I've been laid off, I've gotten phone calls from brother officers that are willing to give me money to help pay my mortgage, are willing to lend me their car if I needed a car.

Laid off New Bedford firefighter Brian Gallant says he would not want to see the pay cut.

GALLANT: If you give away things that we've fought for over the years, the likelihood of us getting them back are slim to none. Do we want to come back to the same thing we left. You know, what we enjoyed? Or do we want to come back to less? I can't speak for all of us, but I feel that the general consensus among us is that this had to be done.

In New Bedford and Fall River, federal stimulus money is expected to bring some police officers back to work. But the stimulus money won't go far. Each city is counting on about $600,000 in stimulus money to keep police officers on the job. But the cities must commit to re-hiring the officers for three years. In each city, a police officer costs about $60,000, including benefits. Over three years, that's a $180,000 commitment per officer. So in New Bedford and Fall River, the stimulus money will only help to bring back two or three officers.

This program aired on March 9, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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