Layoffs take effect in Ann Arbor Fire Department without retirements
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Four Ann Arbor Fire Department employees finished their last day on the job this week, the latest casualties of the city's budget struggles.
Those being laid off include three firefighters and one management assistant, said Fire Chief Dominick Lanza, who declined further comment.
City officials were hoping to avoid implementing layoffs, but their plan counted on other firefighters retiring by July 1.
Mayor John Hieftje expressed regret that the last day of the city's fiscal year came and went on Wednesday without any of the city's seven retirement-eligible firefighters hanging up their hats.
"My heart goes out to the folks who are being laid off," Hieftje said. "But again, these are unprecedented times in our state, and I don't think there's a city left that hasn't had to make painful decisions."
The Ann Arbor City Council approved a budget in May for the new fiscal year, which starts today. The budget includes trimming five vacant positions in the police department and five jobs in the fire department, only one of which was vacant.
City Administrator Roger Fraser said the fire department is the only department to see layoffs, although a significant number of vacant positions are being eliminated throughout the city.
Early in the budget process, 40 jobs in police and fire had been slated for elimination. But after revisions by Hieftje and council members, only five were cut in each department — with the hope that layoffs would be avoided through firefighter retirements.
Hieftje said 12 firefighters in Grand Rapids recently retired to save the jobs of younger firefighters facing layoff there.
But in Ann Arbor, fire officials acknowledged back in May they were unsure whether those eligible would retire because no financial incentive was offered.
"That's a personal decision that they have to make, and currently there's not an incentive to do that," Lanza said at the time. "The city's not in a financial posture to do a buyout like they did with the police officers."
Hieftje argues there was enough incentive.
Hieftje said the firefighters eligible to retire could have left the city with more than $100,000 cash in their pockets, their full pensions and retiree health insurance. He said each had more than $100,000 banked from unused sick days and vacation time over the courses of their careers and will receive that money as a cash payout when they retire.
"When we talk about incentives, it's hard for me to understand why any additional incentive would be needed," he said.
Representatives of the Ann Arbor firefighters union did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.
Hieftje said the city has taken steps in recent years to cut down on those kinds of large cash payouts. In the 1980s and '90s, employees could walk out the door with a couple hundred thousand dollars or more when they retired, but that's no longer the case, he said.
A New York Times story Sunday looked at the issue on a national level, pointing out how one New Jersey town paid out nearly $1 million to four retiring police officers for their unused sick days and vacation time.
Lanza said in May that eliminating five positions in the fire department would be manageable. He said no fire stations would close, and the city still would be able to get firefighters on the scene of a fire as quickly as it does today.
But the firefighters union has disagreed with the chief, claiming the department already is substandard. Lanza declined to comment on Wednesday when asked if he still believes response times wouldn't diminish.
Hieftje said the layoff of firefighters is a first.
"So far as I know, I don't think the city has ever laid off any firefighters — at least not in modern times," he said. "But these are unprecedented times and the worst situation for government funding since the 1930s."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.