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Pinching has cut 1,050 city jobs

Hiring gains wiped out Trims don’t balance budget

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / March 21, 2011

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Boston shed 1,050 municipal jobs over the past two years to balance the city’s budget during the recession, trimming the payroll by 6 percent, according to a new report from a fiscal watchdog.

The cuts have almost eviscerated all the hiring the city did during the economic boom in the last decade. Boston’s payroll now numbers 16,227, just above the level in 2004 when the city emerged from the recession that began in 2001.

But the most recent layoffs, retirements, and attrition have not solved the city’s fiscal problems, according to the report by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

Spending for salaries and benefits actually increased by $686,751 in the last fiscal year even though the city dropped 790 jobs in 2009.

The culprits for the slight rise in spending: raises in union contracts and the surging costs of employees’ pensions and health insurance, according to the report. It is increasingly expensive to employ workers, a difficult reality for a city that spends 70 percent of its annual $2.3 billion budget on salaries and benefits.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino will deliver a new budget next month, while Boston faces more financial hurdles as federal stimulus money dries up and the state cuts local aid to cities and towns for the fourth consecutive year.

The city’s largest department, the public schools, already approved a plan to shutter or merge 18 schools to close an estimated budget gap of $63 million.

“We’ve already seen through the School Department so far how difficult this year will be,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the research bureau, a watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits.

On the positive side, Tyler said, the reductions and layoffs over the past two years have helped streamline city government.

The city has also raised revenues with increased hotel and meal taxes, he said, and has begun using more of its rainy day fund. All this bodes well for the coming budget season.

“I think because of the cuts made in 2009 and 2010 that there will be far fewer personnel reductions,’’ Tyler said.

The Menino administration acknowledged that on a spreadsheet the total number of city workers has fallen during the recession.

“But in terms of service delivery, for example in schools, we’ve increased the number of programs,’’ said the mayor’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce. “So while we are adding stuff in some areas, we’ve had to reduce staff in others.’’

The bulk of the job cuts were in the three largest departments: school, police, and fire.

The School Department, which accounts for 8,047 or almost half the city’s employees, eliminated 525 positions, including 153 teachers, over the last two years. That drop followed a 10 percent increase in staff from 2004 through 2008, when 773 new jobs were added for expanded full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds and dividing large high schools into smaller learning centers, according to the report.

The Police Department payroll shrank by 139 jobs over the past two years, dropping to 2,904. The cuts abolished the mounted horse unit and forced other reductions that led to 54 layoffs in 2009.

Also, state cuts that lowered police pay triggered a rush of retirements, with 141 officers pulling their papers, almost double the number the previous two years.

The same pattern emerged at the Fire Department, which lost 71 positions over the past two years, lowering its ranks to 1,572. In 2009, 90 firefighters retired, a run triggered in large part by pension reform, according to the report.

Smaller city departments also endured cuts. Boston closed its printing plant last year, eliminating a department that had the equivalent of 27 full-time employees in 2009. The Boston Public Library slashed 52 positions over the past two years, according to the report, by restructuring the central branch.

But the job losses came with consequences, said Jennifer Springer of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which represents roughly 1,500 city workers in the library, public works, and other departments.

“Our members are doing more with less,’’ said Springer, who noted that unions are negotiating with the city to curb health insurance costs, which also hit employees in the pocketbook.

“Our workers are trying very hard to keep up the same level of services that public expects and deserves. But it does take a toll. They are working harder and faster with fewer co-workers.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com.