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City considers cutting 12 positions

Council wants to eliminate budget shortfall

Altoona Manager Ken Decker on Wednesday proposed reducing the size of the city’s staff by 12 or 13 in the coming months, to eliminate a $1 million budget shortfall without raising taxes.

Under a plan City Council seems to have accepted, Altoona would eliminate four police officers and two firefighter posts and lay off three community development, two public works and four administrative support positions.

The loss of those 15 slots would be partially offset by hiring a full time finance director, a GIS land-use expert and possibly a customer service representative, according to Decker.

Given the financial difficulties inflicted on residents by COVID-19 shutdowns, the city’s low median household income and the large number of retirees in Altoona, it didn’t seem right to raise taxes, council members said.

And given that many city functions — water and sewer, recreation and emergency medical services — have been delegated to municipal authorities, there weren’t many places to cut, and expensive public safety had to be a major target, according to Decker.

“It’s fair to say nobody is happy about the situation,” the manager said. But council wanted city government “to share the pain” that residents have felt during this difficult year, “instead of leaning on them for more money, so that we can avoid difficult decisions,” he said.

The shrinkage in the police and fire departments would occur next year when and if the expected retirements occur, officials said.

The layoffs would occur at the beginning of February, so employees could prepare for their job losses, and those would be softened by the city’s picking up health insurance costs for six months, according to Decker’s recommendation.

The cuts are proposed to be made across all departments, proportional to their cost to the city, according to Decker.

The initial proposal was for six police cuts, but Decker reduced that to four, because it seemed like more than the department could sustain, he said.

The firefighter cuts were limited by “minimum manning” requirements for that department negotiated with the union many years ago, Decker said.

Those requirements could be up for discussion next year in anticipation of the expiration of the current three-year contract at the end of 2021, Decker said.

As part of the cost-savings plan, the Community Development Department, whose director post was eliminated about a month ago, would be broken up — with the housing component folded into the Finance Department and the land use component folded into the Department of Codes & Inspections, Decker said.

Human resources-finance Director Omar Strohm would return to HR, which is his main area of expertise.

For the police cuts, “the timing is unfortunate,” given the presence of COVID-19 and its potential for sidelining officers — coupled with overall “uncertainty” connected with the election and national leadership, according to Fred Wasser, president of the Fraternal Order of Police local.

“That uncertainty is enough to make a prudent person want to keep the numbers up,” Wasser said.

Still, while he didn’t necessarily agree with the financial figures, “I understand the city’s situation,” he said.

But the city needs to guarantee that even if and when it may wish to reverse the cuts, it won’t compromise on its recruiting, vetting and training procedures, which can take up to two years before an officer is fully ready to operate on the street — a process meant to ensure officer competence, he said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union will lose three people — two clerical workers and an engineering tech, said local President Scott Campanaro.

“It’s the city’s right to reduce the workforce,” Campanaro said.

Still, it won’t be easy for the department, especially given that Public Works has lost “maybe a quarter of its people” in the last 15 years, Campanaro said.

“But we’ll keep showing up for work,” he said.

The hope is that the people being laid off will be able to bump into other positions that could come open through retirement or some other way, Campanaro said.

The proposed reductions are surprising, when contrasted with the impression created a couple of years ago that the city had a healthy surplus, after emerging from the state’s Act 47 distressed municipalities program.

Starting in 2011, after years of near insolvency, the city benefited from increased income due to Act 47, along with the county’s tax reassessment and increased contributions from the Altoona Water Authority.

But expenses over that last decade also rose 2.2% annually — even as the overall tax base shrank and the population declined 7%, according to Decker.

The surplus was a mirage, given that the city has a high load of debt, because of its $42-million unfunded pension liability, its $30-million unfunded liability for health insurance for retired police and firefighters, its $112 million total debt service obligation and lots of deferred maintenance for roads, bridges and buildings, Decker said.

“The city spent a lot of years hand-to-mouth,” he said. “When you’re poor a long time and you come into a little extra money, it may seem like your problems are solved.”

But it’s like a family who had run up lots of credit card debt, while letting its house deteriorate, he said.

In a longer view, the city’s situation reflects its population having shrunk to about half its late-1920s maximum of 80,000, along with the drastic shrinkage of its legacy railroad workforce from the long-ago peak of 17,000 to the small complement that exists now, Decker said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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