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South Portland residents rally in support of laid off workers

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South Portland residents rally in support of laid off workers

SOUTH PORTLAND — More than 50 people showed up to the City Council meeting Wednesday, demanding answers to questions lingering in the wake of five layoffs made last week to balance next year's budget.
On Feb. 24, City Manager Jim Gailey announced the layoffs of five employees, many of whom had worked for the city for more than 25 years. The laid off workers were given five minutes to collect their personal belongings and were escorted from the building.
Most of the audience expressed shock at the method used to terminate the employees, especially in the case of Deborah Smith, the operations supervisor at the recreation department for the last 28 years, and young adult librarian Reta Nappi.
Residents also questioned whether other cost cutting measures, like reduced salaries, reduced 401k contributions and furlough days, had been pursued.
But the City Council, with the exception of Jim Soule, joined a handful of residents in rallying around Gailey, who opened Wednesday's meeting by reading a prepared statement. Councilors said that Gailey is responsible for personnel decisions and the City Charter prohibits councilors from interfering with those decisions.
"I feel comfortable that we've tried everything we can before getting to this point," Councilor Thomas Coward said. "We have to balance our budget. We can't just print money like some levels of government."
In his statement, Gailey said the middle management positions were targeted because the city would realize the most cost savings by laying off fewer workers. He said the workers were immediately let go last week so the city could realize the savings starting July 1, the start of the next fiscal year.
"I did what I needed to do," Gailey said. "There were no good choices or right choices, only different choices."
Each of the workers received a severance package consisting of two week's pay in lieu of a two-week notice and are also entitled to receive a week's pay for every two years they have worked for the city, plus accrued vacation and personal days and a portion of unused sick time.
Payouts to laid-off employees will total nearly $140,000 – ranging from $49,600 for public works operations supervisor Dave Gaudet to $9,000 for part-time library secretary Monica Dubay – in the current budget, but is estimated to reduce next year's costs by more than $283,000 in salaries and benefits.
"Thus, the employees have been provided with financial resources as they explore reemployment opportunities," Gailey said. "The (former) employees are also being provided with assistance dealing with some of the emotional issues related to layoffs, as they have all been offered counseling through the city's employee assistance program."
Many residents dismissed Gailey's unequivocal denial that the layoffs were not for personal reasons and that services would not be dramatically affected. Already the young adult room at the main library has been closed, they said, and plans are in the works to move that collection upstairs in the main section.
Carol Bartlett, a preschool teacher for 17 years at the Community Center, complained that Recreation Superintendent Bill Cary has not been receptive to her requests that management meet with employees to explain the layoffs and how Smith's jobs responsibilities will be doled out.
"We were all in shock, overwhelmed and saddened by what had happened and how it happened," said Bartlett, noting the low morale of staff. "We were told (by Cary) to suck it up and go about our business."
Several residents implored the city to hold exit interviews with those who were laid off to hear their side of the story.
The city originally agreed last week to meet with Smith, but that offer
was later rescinded. Smith now intends to provide a report to the city
manager and councilors, detailing her grievances.
Meanwhile, Smith has hired a public relations specialist to handle media inquiries and has consulted an attorney.
Former City Attorney Mary Kahl spoke on behalf of the laid-off workers, indicating that the city may be responsible for paying 65 percent of the former employees' COBRA health care costs. Kahl said she hoped South Portland would have done whatever possible to avoid layoffs, which only contribute to the recession and foreclosure rates.
"I was hoping the council would even throw in the taxpayer-funded health insurance coverage if it would help to save jobs," Kahl said of the council perk that in the current budget costs $70,000. "At a minimum, I thought there would be full council discussion of any proposed cuts."
Request for closed session withdrawn
Councilor Soule withdrew a motion to enter into closed session to discuss Gailey's handling of the layoffs, citing the language used to place the item on the agenda.
Soule blasted Mayor Tom Blake and the city's outside legal attorney for not properly wording the motion to review the duties and responsibilities of the city manager. Instead, the agenda called for a review of process, which is not a legal basis for closed discussion.
Last week, Soule said he was blind-sided by the layoffs. But Blake said Wednesday night that the possibility of lay-offs had been made clear to councilors.
"There is not a single councilor here that was not well aware that we were looking at cuts," Blake said. "If a councilor did know that, then I believe that councilor may not have been paying attention."
It's unlikely Soule would have gotten the five votes needed to enter closed session, even if the item was worded properly. During the council's open discussion, councilors said micromanaging city personnel decisions is outside of the council's purview and is expressly prohibited in the City Charter. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net.