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Posted October 30, 2009 EST

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Laid-Off Lawrence Firefighters Collecting Full Pay
Eight city firefighters have been getting paid to stay at home for 11 weeks while waiting for a decision on whether their layoffs were justified. Definitely, a couple of balls were dropped on this one, Mayor Michael Sullivan said yesterday of the personnel moves that prolonged the Fire Department's budget problem instead of eliminating it.

"The city never capitalized on the savings from the layoffs. We're continuing to pay out money the city doesn't have ... Eight employees are sitting home collecting full pay," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said he now regrets his Aug. 13 to lay off the firefighters, which resulted in the closing of firehouses on Tower Hill and Prospect Hill.

"If I knew eight weeks later that the employees would not have been laid off, I wouldn't have shut down the two fire stations. I would have taken a different course," Sullivan said.

"Once again, it comes down to a government bureaucratic issue that just gets in the way of doing the right thing. It's going to be a moot point any way because these layoffs were justified on budgetary issues. The Fire Department is running a severe budget deficit," he said.

Assistant City Attorney James Bowers said the city finds itself in the current predicament because of a provision in Civil Service law that entitles the employees to a hearing in which the city must argue its case that the layoffs were justified. Once the hearing officer issues a finding, the mayor has seven days to issue a decision based upon those recommendations. The hearing officer hired by the city more than a month ago has still not released his opinion.

Meanwhile, Fire Chief Peter Takvorian expects to learn today if the eight firefighters who were laid off in mid-August can return to work soon -- or should prepare to file unemployment claims.

Takvorian was encouraged earlier this month by the possibility that the firefighters would be back on duty after the state announced it would give the city $521,000 in federal stimulus funds -- part of $8.1 million released by Gov. Deval Patrick to save 127 firefighter jobs lost by communities throughout the state.

But it's not clear whether the stimulus money will be enough to keep the Lawrence firefighters on the payroll without creating a budget deficit, at least through the fiscal year that ends next June 30.

Even if the money is available, there are also questions on what it can be used for and whether the men can legally return to their jobs, pending the outcome of a hearing challenging their layoff notices.

"I've called for a special meeting to get this situation resolved and I hope to get permission to bring them back," said Takvorian, who set up a briefing for today with key city staff to determine whether there are any financial or legal obstacles that would prevent the firefighters from returning to work.

"These people who are affected don't want to be in this position. I don't want the public to think they're preferring this. They'd rather be productive members of the department and back doing their jobs. Because of the circumstances surrounding the legal process, they've had no choice but to stay at home," Takvorian said.

But with enough federal grant money available, Takvorian questions the need to wait for the hearing officer's report. He expects that issue and others to be resolved after today's meeting.

Assistant City Attorney Bowers, Budget and Finance Director Mark Andrews, acting personnel director Anne Randazzo and others will attend the meeting to discuss options.

"The real shame is these guys have been out of work for so long, getting paid and haven't been serving the city like they should be," said Lawrence Firefighters Local 146 President Patrick Driscoll

"When these guys were getting laid off and they had their hearing, they expected to get the decision pretty quick and it would be over in a couple of days. But, it's dragged on," Driscoll said.

The city would face a worse situation, he said, if it went ahead with the layoffs. Severance packages for the men would cost about $100,000 in addition to the unemployment compensation the city would have to pay.

"We have an opportunity to get $520,000 and be saving $100,000," he said.

Written by The Eagle-Tribune

Courtesy of YellowBrix - YellowBrix