DUNEDIN — The city has laid off one employee this week — the city's fire marshal — and five more staffers could lose their jobs if budget cuts in City Manager Rob DiSpirito's budget proposal are approved.
DiSpirito says the layoffs — most of them administrative positions made obsolete by technological advances — are being recommended as part of a larger plan to ward off a projected $1.2 million shortfall next year.
The City Commission, which will get its first glimpse of the proposed budget today, will have final say over whether to retain four of the employees through financial maneuvering during summer budget talks.
However, the most visible layoff — of Dunedin Fire Marshal Bill McElligott — was effective immediately upon being handed down Tuesday.
DiSpirito and Fire Chief Bud Meyer said that's because one of McElligott's former job duties, fire inspection, will be absorbed by a civilian, and Meyer wanted at least six months to hire and train the new fire inspector before he retires in January.
The layoff will save an estimated $50,000, plus eliminate pension contributions.
The move has drawn fire from residents, who laud McElligott's nearly six years of service to the city. Some have questioned the sudden need for layoffs, when last year the city reduced the property tax rate and spoke of having healthy reserves.
But DiSpirito called the cut a last resort, necessary because of declining property values and a commission directive that supervisors working to balance the budget lead with "efficiencies" in lieu of raising property taxes and reducing services.
DiSpirito said this was the third year that Meyer offered the fire marshal position as a potential cut. The city manager has discretion to make midyear operational decisions, so McElligott was laid off immediately.
"I held off until I ran out of alternatives," DiSpirito said, adding that this was the first major fire department cut in at least five years. "We just got to the point when we couldn't take it out of other departments. ... We really didn't want to take a firefighter off the front lines."
The city has already notified the other employees of the potential layoffs. If approved by the commission, each would keep his or her job through Sept. 30, the last day of the fiscal year. Depending on length of employment, they would receive three or six months of pay and benefits beyond the termination date.
McElligott, who was fire marshal for the city of Margate in south Florida before Dunedin hired him in 2006, also will receive salary and benefits through the end of the fiscal year.
But that's little consolation for the 38-year fire veteran, who said the termination appeared to come "out of the blue."
McElligott said he worked an on-call Memorial Day weekend shift, only to be pulled into Meyer's office Tuesday morning, where a human resources manager handed him a termination package.
In addition to serving on several fire-related county and regional boards, McElligott acted as Dunedin's fire marshal, media spokesman and disaster preparedness coordinator; headed a team of three fire inspectors; oversaw hazardous materials and the juvenile arson intervention program; and gave public presentations about hurricane and fire safety. Over six years, he claims he worked "in excess of 450 to 500 hours" of flex overtime that the city won't pay out.
A review of his personnel file shows six "satisfactory" evaluations lauding him for his enthusiasm and skills. The file contains three disciplinary incidents, from 2010, 2011 and 2012. One was for failing to offer input as requested on a stadium handrail purchase that later had to be changed, and two were for disseminating inaccurate information to the public or staff. He disputed the 2011 inaccuracy claims.
In 2010, the Florida Association of Homes and Services for the Aged named McElligott the state's public servant of the year.
"It's odd because I've never received a bad evaluation," McElligott said, adding that it was a privilege to work in Dunedin, where he's also a resident. "It's unfortunate that (city supervisors) think so little of the job that I did."
However, DiSpirito said the cut had been proposed before so it shouldn't have come as a complete surprise. He said city officials discussed revenue declines during an April workshop.
"It wasn't a secret," DiSpirito said. "We knew we had a shortfall for some time. It was just a question of how much and how to address it."
In a memo to DiSpirito last week, Meyer noted that the chiefs in most cities Dunedin's size double as the fire marshal.
McElligott's salary was $76,210. The civilian fire inspector, to be hired by August, will make $36,143. Officials expect greater productivity from the civilian, who won't be distracted by managerial or other duties.
Meyer and on-scene division chiefs will share McElligott's former spokesman duties.
The other employees facing layoff are:
• One of three permit clerks in the department of planning and development.
• One administrative assistant each in the solid waste division, parks division, city manager's office and city clerk's office.
The city has also proposed nixing a warehouse inventory position with the city's water department and an accounting position within the city's finance department, which are already vacant.
As has happened in the past, there's a "decent chance," DiSpirito said, that a few of the workers might be retained in positions that come available through staff restructuring, retirement or other means.
Mayor Dave Eggers, when asked whether he was disappointed that the City Commission didn't get to weigh in on McElligott's termination along with those proposed for other employees, also noted that the fire marshal cut was not a new recommendation.
Layoffs are "awful." Eggers said.
"This isn't just numbers on a piece of paper. These are lives. So, of course, you wish you could do things differently," he said. "But at the end of the day, we have to be true to the mission of the city, which is to deliver services effectively and at the same time be watchful stewards of the taxpayers' dollars."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.