The city of Merced sent 64 layoff notices to employees Thursday, with more than half in the Police Department, in a move to address the city's $5.5 million general fund deficit.
The layoffs include 29 sworn police officers, five nonsworn officers and 12 firefighters in the Merced Fire Department. Public works was also hard hit, losing 12 positions, said City Manager John Bramble.
The remaining four positions came from development services and the city finance department, he added.
The last day of work for affected employees will be June 27.
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Notices were also given to employees ranging from executive management to front-line staff, Bramble said.
The layoffs must be approved by the City Council.
The cuts were part of the 15 percent budget reduction ordered by Bramble's office for all city departments. Bramble said the city is proposing 80 layoffs -- 64 filled positions and 16 unfilled positions.
The Police Department takes up the lion's share of the general fund, with more than $17.1 million budgeted for this fiscal year. The Fire Department receives $8.2 million from the general fund, the second-largest expenditure.
"At this point we wanted to give employees as much notice as possible so they were not getting a two-week notice, so they can make plans," Bramble said. "We've got to reduce expenditures and we are in the process of doing that."
He said the city would continue to take a close look at police and fire budgets.
When layoffs are imminent, morale goes down, Bramble said. "People didn't know whether they were above or below the line, so this gives them some degree of certainty," he said.
The city provides a free counseling program for employees, Bramble said.
The only option the city had to increase revenue was a potential sales tax measure, Mayor Bill Spriggs said. That measure failed to be put on the November ballot in a 4-3 vote by the City Council last month. Now, the city has to make adjustments on the expenditure side, which is employees and payroll, Spriggs said.
"We're faced with having to close a $5 to $6 million hole in the budget and the only way we can do that is either decrease expenses or increase revenues," Spriggs explained. "It's something we didn't want to do, but in all fairness to the employees you need to give them as much time as you can so they can try to make plans and adjustments in their own lives."
Of the 34 police layoffs, 29 sworn officers received pink slips, according to Merced Police Lt. Matt Williams. That reduces the police force to 66 from 95 sworn officers. "It's a pretty somber day around here," he said, adding that he had five men in a shift who had received layoff notices Thursday.
At least two officers on the department's gang task force received layoff notices. "What do you tell the guys? They have families to feed just like everybody else and have house payments. They're right out there, working," Williams said.
Losing 34 positions puts the department back to the staffing levels of the early 1990s, according to Detective Keith Pelowski, president of the Merced Police Officers Association. Population has increased since the 1990s, he said, and calls to serv-ice have greatly increased, too.
The layoffs will be based on seniority, he said.
"What you're going to see is that other units, such as detectives or more of the seasoned officers, are going to be assigned back to patrol," he explained. "Sergeants may have to start taking some reports, which is going to take away from them supervising shifts."
Pelowski said he didn't know what Chief Norm Andrade had planned, "but they're going to have to maintain a certain level on patrol, and to do that you are going to see these other units that could be reduced in size and put back into patrol to maintain patrol."
That could mean fewer officers available for investigating crimes, he said.
"Crime doesn't go away, and the calls for service will increase," Pelowski said. "I think that you're going to see more crimes and there are going to be fewer officers to go out there and handle these crimes."
The department is taking the news hard, he said. "It's really bad. They're really down, and trying to keep them motivated, it's a really hard thing to do," he said.
Pelowski said the department is still in talks with the city about different ways to bring in some savings to the department. He wouldn't give any details.
The police chief was unavailable for comments Thursday.
The fire department issued 12 actual layoff notices to firefighters, but the department is budgeted to lose 14 positions. The division fire chief position, which the department froze, equates to two firefighter positions, explained Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin.
They've had three retirements, a voluntary separation and the division fire chief position. That reduces the fire department to 52 sworn officers from 69 sworn officers, he added.
The layoffs saved an additional six layoffs in the department, McLaughlin said.
"A couple of months ago, we talked about losing positions. A month ago, we assigned names to those positions," McLaughlin said. "Today, I had to look into their eyes. The feedback I'm receiving from the firefighters today was no surprise."
He said the department knew what the numbers were going to be.
"But still being given that piece of paper and having that conversation, there are no words to describe the pain, the loss. It's a tough time," he said.
Working in close quarters and on 24-hour shifts, the department is tight-knit, he said.
"It's hard on everybody; it's just a tough, tough day," he said.
Thursday's layoff announcement puts affected firefighters on rehire lists for other cities, McLaughlin said. This gives them the opportunity to look for another job.
Effective June 27, any fire personnel at risk of layoff can exercise their right to an elected demotion, or "bumping." For example, a captain who has received a notice has the right to either be laid off or claim a demotion to an engineer or a position he may have held previously, McLaughlin explained.
Twelve positions, primarily in the operations staff, will be cut from the Public Works Department, according to Stan Murdock, director of operations.
In 2007, the department had 200 budgeted positions. That number has dropped to 174, which includes some vacant positions, Murdock explained. That's about 35 or 36 total eliminated positions over three years. He said a minimum of three management positions have been eliminated in that time.
"The intent was for these layoffs to be all that were needed, but the economy is not something which we can control," Murdock noted.
Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.