Councilman Luis Velez denounced a tentative plan to lay off more than 100 police officers to close a large budget shortfall on Wednesday afternoon.
“We cannot manage the city with 300 police officers. We’re under the number already and now you’re going to lay off 112? Come on,” said Velez. He said layoffs will leave the police force overburdened and demoralized.
Velez, one of the mayor’s closest allies on the City Council, described the potential layoffs as suicidal. He did not directly fault mayor Andre Sayegh, but assigned blame on his advisors.
“If you guys are advising the mayor to do that you are, little by little, suiciding the mayor’s career,” Velez told Sayegh’s business administrator Vaughn McKoy in a heated exchange on Wednesday.
One of Sayegh’s predecessor, Jeffery Jones, saw his political fortunes tank following a big layoff in 2011. He took a further hit from an overtime scandal. Some residents threatened to assault Jones when he was campaigning for re-election in 2014 for his failures in office.
Jones finished fourth place in that race.
Velez pointed out the mayor campaigned last year on reducing crime and improving quality of life.
“These are his soldiers to work towards quality of life. How are you going to lay them off and improve quality of life?” remarked Velez referring to police officers.
The tentative plan shared with union representatives calls for the layoff of 112 police officers. There’s also potential layoff of firefighters and public works employees.
Municipal officials have not made public their full plan to resolve the $6 million budget shortfall. The city raised taxes by 2-percent in July – some fear a higher increase before budget adoption.
Velez said many of the mayor’s advisors were not around when the city laid off 125 police officers in 2011 and crime shot up. Residents constantly complained about police response time following the layoffs. Some complained about waiting 3-4 hours for police response.
Just before the 2011 layoffs, the police department had 500 officers. Now, the department has 415.
“Layoffs are a last resort. However, we are facing a fiscal crisis and we presented viable options to avert any reduction in force and furloughs. We are asking for a shared sacrifice starting with me,” said Sayegh in a statement.
The administration unsuccessfully sought to enlist employees into a two-week pay deferral scheme over the next six months to avert layoffs. But some wanted a guarantee there would be no layoffs if they agree to give up two weeks of pay.
Velez said the administration needs to find revenue, besides raising taxes, to close the budget deficit. He suggested settling the tax dispute with St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center to generate revenue.
Velez repeatedly blamed the mayor’s advisors for some of the administration’s questionable decisions.
“If the mayor doesn’t open his eyes and ears and keep on following these people’s advice on how to manage the city, they’re going to turn him into the city’s worst mayor,” said Velez. “I don’t think these decisions are being made by him. These decisions are bad advice.”
A dozen of Sayegh’s supporters, who expected reform and big changes in governance, become disillusioned with him over the past six months. Few directly blamed the mayor, but pointed the finger at the people he has surrounded himself with.
Sayegh told voters he would allow others to handle the day-to-day operations of the city while he serves as the “cheerleader in-chief” at a debate last year. His opponents quickly seized on the remark to mock and criticize him.