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Lawrence police, fire departments may face 70 layoffs

Job cuts to help balance budget

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / May 11, 2010

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The city of Lawrence, struggling with a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and state oversight of its finances, may have to lay off up to 70 police officers and firefighters for the coming fiscal year, the chiefs of the two departments said last night.

At a meeting with state and city officials Friday, Acting Fire Chief Brian Murphy was told to be prepared to lay off 25 to 30 firefighters and support staff as the city tries to balance its budget, he told the Globe last night.

“They want to balance the budget, but at what cost? The cost of safety of the citizens?’’ Murphy said. “We just can’t believe it.’’

Earlier this year, as Lawrence edged toward bankruptcy, state lawmakers passed a $35 million loan bailout package to help the city conduct services and emerge from a $25 million budget deficit.

Under the bill, a state overseer has authority over spending in Lawrence.

Last month, Patrick tapped former Taunton mayor Robert Nunes to be the Lawrence overseer.

He can eventually recommend that a state control board take over the city’s finances, stripping the mayor of much of his budgeting powers, similar to a state takeover in Springfield in 2004.

Nunes did not return calls seeking comment last night.

A formal announcement will be made June 1 regarding Lawrence’s budget.

The Fire Department is already operating with decreased staffing, according to Murphy.

There are 100 firefighters in Lawrence, and the department is operating with a budget of $11,125,000.

In January 2009, department regulations called for 24 to 30 firefighters working per shift. Last August, as the fiscal crisis heated up, the minimum manpower was lowered to 18, and two fire stations in the city were closed. Additional layoffs, Murphy said, would lower the number of firefighters working at one time to nearly half of its 2009 levels.

“There are not enough firefighters to adequately protect the city right now,’’ Murphy said. “If they try to bring us down any lower — it’s just too dangerous a condition.’’

Firefighter Patrick Driscoll, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 146, said his union may consider lobbying for a state control board.

He criticized Nunes and city lawmakers who, Driscoll said, have mismanaged the budget.

“These people are willing to jeopardize public safety,’’ Driscoll said. “We need tax revenue, but if houses start burning down and we can’t protect the people, nobody’s going to want to come to the city to live, and nobody’s going to want to open a business in Lawrence.’’

All city departments were asked to submit a level-funded budget and budgets calling for 10-, 15-, and 20-percent decreases for next year to the state and city officials. Each of the budget levels is being considered in the final formation of the city’s fiscal 2011 budget.

Police Chief John Romero told the Globe last night that in a worst case scenario he would have to lay off as many as 37 police officers and support staff and cut most of its policing services, including the gang, auto theft, and community policing units to ensure there are enough officers to simply conduct patrol operations.

The Police Department has a $12,400,000 budget this year with 145 officers.

Driscoll and Romero both said they feared a return to a Lawrence of the early 1990s, where crime and arson were rampant.

“I understand the money situation but that doesn’t change what it’s going to create,’’ Romero said.

“All the things that have worked for us to reduce crime would be gone.’’

Globe correspondent Hannah McBride contributed to this report. John M. Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.

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