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City costs are nearing breaking point

“I want my street paved, cleaned, plowed and maintained on a regular basis. I want my trash picked up weekly and to have clean drinking water. I want clean beaches, parks and public places and I want all of these things now, tomorrow and the next day as well! I don’t want to pay one penny more for any of it, either; my taxes are already high enough.” Sound familiar? It should. These are the things we have come to expect from our city government and our public works department, but they come with a cost.

Today with the current fiscal crisis caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic, what we want is not necessarily possible. The city of Dunkirk has, in my opinion, some of the most dedicated and competent public works employees anywhere, and they are stressed and over worked; we need more and have needed more for a long time. Unfortunately, needing more and paying for them has been the problem.

At the last council meeting it was suggested that there was an immediate need for another eight public works employees, and I agree, the need is there. However, we must look at the cost because we all know that it comes down to dollars and cents. One new public works employee will cost approximately $32,000 per year in salary alone. When we add the cost of medical insurance (family coverage) of $21,000 per year; dental and life insurance, and NYS Retirement benefits $4,500; and the added employee benefit of the “Flex Plan” of $1,000 annually — it adds up. (These figures are rounded down based on the entry level employee with a family.) It should not take a mathematical genius to see that the cost of hiring one new public works employee will be, at a minimum, $58,500 annually. To hire eight new employees the cost would increase to $468,000! Even just looking at the costs for the remainder of this year, we are still looking at close to a quarter of a million dollars – next year the costs would most likely be even greater.

The latest projections are showing that the city is expected to be in the red by $1 million this year. Can we really afford to add another quarter of a million dollars to that loss? Fiscal management is crucial to this city and its continued opportunities for economic growth and we must think before we spend! Every municipality is in the same position today, and the city of Dunkirk is not alone in this financial crisis. We all want our public works departments to be fully staffed, but that is not necessarily financially feasible.According to a recent article in the Associated Press, the overall job losses among public works employees have reached more than 1.5 million since March.

Additionally, when it comes to moving our city employees from one job to another (as has been suggested at recent council meetings), that is not easily done either. Our employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement. When an employee is hired under a specific job description, they are required to fulfill those duties as outlined, and no more. When a councilman or councilwoman suggests that an employee hired under a specific job description and job title be redirected to perform tasks outside of that job title and job description the employee can simply say “no” and the union will support the employee with a grievance against the city. We have an air-tight AFSCME 912 Collective Bargaining Agreement, and believe me, the employees covered under that agreement are well aware of it. To put it bluntly, this agreement has the city by the … well, you get the point, and it has been that way for the past 40 years. This is not “union bashing” on my part, it is simply stating the facts.

I believe the men and women who work for the city of Dunkirk are good, hard working individuals who deserve every penny they make and then some; and they deserve the protection their union provides. I state the above only as an attempt to educate those individuals who speak without having the facts before them and grandstand based on their shallow ability to recognize that what they say and what is are two very different things. The city simply cannot afford to add a quarter of a million dollars to this year’s budget without cutting somewhere else. The city simply cannot just move employees from one job to another one that is outside of their job description – these employees are protected by not only their collective bargaining agreement but by the state and county civil service regulations.

Sitting (or ZOOMING as the case may be) on a podium and saying what sounds like good intentions and what may seem politically advantageous to the speaker at the time is not always what is in the best interest of the City. When someone speaks out of their … hat, however, and when push comes to shove and all of the facts are made clear, the speaker is often seen as ill-informed and not having an elevator that goes all the way to the top.

I’ll take a breath here and leave you with a statement from American poet and author, Anthony Liccione, “A fool is made more of a fool, when their mouth is more open than their mind.” If only, if only!

Have a great day.

Vicki Westling is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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