PINELLAS PARK — This city's leaders have bragged for months about the fact that they have not — and won't have to — lay off any employees despite the hard economic times.
They've told that to news media and have even basked in the praise of a citizens' budget committee that studied the proposed $50 million operating budget for 2009-10 and "commended the city manager for a superb job in significantly reducing expenses … no layoffs are required."
Trouble is, at least one employee is being laid off. Ashley Marchese, a public education specialist in the Pinellas Park Fire Department, says she was told in April that she would be laid off come Sept. 30 because her job was being eliminated. And they twice told her not to use the term "laid off."
"They said, 'No, don't use that word,' " Marchese said. Later, "I was called back in and told, 'Don't use that word.' "
Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler and City Manager Mike Gustafson, however, both say Marchese is wrong about being laid off.
Mischler said Pinellas Park does not lay off people. Mischler said he does not believe in layoffs because they affect families in addition to the employee. The city instead eliminates positions by natural attrition or shifting employees to other jobs.
"Can we guarantee that (layoffs) will never happen?" Mischler asked. Then he answered his own question with no. Mischler and Gustafson maintain layoffs are not happening right now, nor in the 2009-10 budget year.
Gustafson says he has 26 positions on the chopping block, and that could increase before the budget is finalized. But no employees will lose jobs, he said. As for Marchese, he said, "we don't lay off part-time people in the first place."
But Marchese has an interoffice memorandum dated May 7 written by Jane Clark, the city's personnel director. The memo tells of three options for Marchese. The first two both end with this clause: "she would be laid off at the close of business on September 30, 2009."
Marchese said relying on the fact that she is part time to say she is not being "laid off" is demeaning. But in the long run, she doesn't really care what the city calls it. Either way she'll be unemployed. Marchese said she was most upset over public statements that employees are not being laid off or losing their jobs when that's not true.
Gustafson said the city offered to let Marchese apply for an alternate job that was "ideal" and designed specifically for her. She did not apply.
But the job that Clark describes in her memo is a far cry from the position Marchese has held for the past four years. Marchese's public education job has been a part-time Pinellas Park position for more than 19 years. The duties include preschool and school-age fire and poison prevention programs. She is in charge of the car-seat program for the department. She also serves as the co-chair for the SAFEKIDS Pinellas County child passenger committee and has participated in two televised news stories on child passenger safety. She earns $24,807 a year.
The job described in Clark's letter is a part-time recreation assistant, a 20-hour position that is 40 hours during the summer. The pay scale is $11.08 to $16.86 per hour.
To take the position, Marchese would have had to accept a substantial pay cut and increase her hours, which she does not want to do because she has a child.
Gustafson said the job that was created for her was a part-time public information position elsewhere in the city, but he said she didn't apply for it.
As Marchese goes onto unemployment, the city's retirees and some employees will see raises. Firefighters, for example, will get 3 percent raises, but Gustafson said they'll be increasing the out-of-pocket contribution to the retirement plan, making their raises about 0.22 percent.
And even though the city is negotiating with police and other employees, Gustafson said, "there's no one else slated for raises at this time."
But retirees are in for a 2.79 percent pension increase. That would normally mean the City Council would receive that much because their automatic raises are tied to retirees' raises. But the council has said it will forgo raises next year. That means Mischler's salary will remain at $17,934, and each of the other four council members will continue receiving $15,543. Total savings to taxpayers: about $2,200.
As for taxpayers, they'll be paying the same property tax rate as they do this year — about $4.55 for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. A homeowner whose house is assessed at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption will pay about $455 in city taxes next year.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.