Layoffs in Oak Bluffs; police to consider wage cuts
Two Oak Bluffs town employees got layoff notices this week, and two others learned they will work fewer hours, as the town moves to close a $500,000 budget gap in the current fiscal 2010 budget.
The police department has been asked to cut $85,000 from its budget, according to one person with knowledge of the cost-cutting plan. That would most likely mean the layoff of a police officer. Police union members will meet soon to discuss wage concessions that could avoid a layoff.
Assistant shellfish constable Peter Estrella and health department administrative assistant Nathalie Woodruff are the employees laid off. Principal assessor Diane Wilson and harbor administrative assistant Wendy Brough learned that their hours will be reduced, though they will still qualify for benefits.
"Nobody likes to tell employees they're laid off," town administrator Michael Dutton said in a phone conversation with The Martha's Vineyard Times yesterday. "We don't have a lot of employees. For every employee we lose to a layoff, it means more work for other employees. We're very sensitive to that. I've spent the last two weeks searching for every possible way to maintain our current staffing and hours."
The layoffs will trigger a reorganization of town government and a physical reconfiguration of town offices. The biggest change will be a new licensing and permit department, intended to streamline the process of obtaining everything from shellfish licenses to business and building permits.
"We need to do a better job of servicing the public, and part of that is to create a one-stop shop for permitting," Mr. Dutton said. He also intends to consolidate the harbor department, the conservation commission, and shellfish department into a natural resource division, and streamline functions in the finance department.
Members of the Oak Bluffs police union have formally requested "impact bargaining" to re-open negotiation on the current police contract. They say they hope that the layoff of a police officer can be avoided by department-wide wage concessions.
"It's my belief that we will be able to avoid a layoff with some wage concessions," police officer James Morse, acting union steward, said in a phone conversation with The Martha's Vineyard Times yesterday. He cautioned that the town and the union have not met formally, and that details remain to be worked out. "The devil is always in the details. The union is committed to the best possible service to the town. We don't think that can necessarily be accomplished with reduced staffing."
Under the union's collective bargaining agreement, "impact bargaining" is allowed under specific conditions that significantly affect the department. The current three-year contract, which provides a three percent annual pay raise for police officers, could be renegotiated in a number of ways to reduce the amount of money the town is obligated to pay police officers.
Town administrator Dutton began notifying town employees of layoffs and reduced hours on Tuesday, and that process was completed yesterday.
In the selectmen's meeting Tuesday evening, selectman Kerry Scott criticized the process.
"I was terribly upset to get phone calls," Ms. Scott said. "I'm sorry that people lived with an axe over their heads. I think that's terribly unfortunate, and inhumane."
Ms. Scott also alluded to an executive session, in which, she says, she was loudly criticized. "I'm so tired about being shouted at and berated," she said. "I don't think we've been as creative as we could and don't think we've involved the people we should have."
Ms. Scott cited the salary or working hours of two positions she thought should have been considered for layoffs, but did not identify the specific positions or the names of the personnel.
Selectmen approved the cost-cutting plan, including layoffs, in an executive session during their August 25 meeting. Previously, Mr. Dutton said the delay in notifying employees about layoffs was so that he could make sure every part of the procedure was done correctly.
"I've been very methodical about it," Mr. Dutton told selectmen at Tuesday's meeting. "I've gone through every different option that I possibly could think of. This is a last resort."
Yesterday, he responded more directly to Ms. Scott's criticism. "It's not been an easy time for anybody," he said. "I'd rather the affected employees know I turned over every stone to maintain their hours and keep them employed. It's a difficult time. Nobody is happy about layoffs. It's been a very long time since the town had to lay off employees. I've explained to the staff we're gong through a difficult period, but I think we'll be stronger for it in the end."
Selectman Ron DiOrio echoed the sentiment that nobody in town government wants layoffs, but he said his constituents accept the necessity. "The only comments I've got are people who say we really need to stay within our budget," he said. "Taxpayers are hurting just like everybody else."