Harvey police and fire department employees were hit with major layoffs Tuesday, one day after an adverse court ruling spurred city officials to convene an emergency meeting with workers.
Officials did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday but the lawyer who represents both Harvey’s police and fire unions said 18 rank-and-file firefighters and 13 patrolmen are believed to have been let go. Another nine police department employees who are not sworn officers — including five booking officers and traffic and records clerks — also had their positions cut, said Dominique Randle-El, the president of AFSCME Council 31 Local 2404.
Overall, the 40 cuts represent about a quarter of the city’s police union members, 40 percent of its firefighters union and 55 percent of its non-sworn police personnel, union officials said.
Jerry Marzullo, who represents the Metropolitan Alliance of Police Chapter 234 and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 471, called the cuts “shameful,” and criticized them for apparently not touching management or civilian employees who are related to Mayor Eric Kellogg.
“I believe that this action speaks for itself in how (city officials) feel about the citizens of Harvey and their safety and protection,” he said.
Alderman Christopher Clark, a strident critic of the mayor and his administration, also bemoaned the choice of employees apparently let go.
“Police and fire are essential services and they should be the last to be laid off, if layoffs have to take place,” he said. “But it looks like (Kellogg) is getting rid of essential services first, and he’s keeping all the fluff.”
Harvey’s layoffs come a day after Circuit Court Judge Raymond W. Mitchell denied the city’s emergency motion requesting that he order Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza to stop withholding revenues the city receives from the state.
Since February, the comptroller’s office has withheld a combined $1,484,000 in city sales, income, local use, transportation, motor fuel, replacement and excise tax revenues at the request of the Harvey Police Pension Fund, spokesman Abdon Pallasch said.
The pension fund, which won a multi-million dollar judgment against the city in 2015, claims Harvey remains more than $7 million delinquent in its payments.
Clark said he wasn’t surprised that the comptroller had begun garnishing city revenues. He’s been expecting a reckoning like this for some time.
“You can rob Peter to pay Paul, but you can only do that for so long,” he said.
Clark said police pension fund representatives had been trying to work with the city to resolve longstanding underfunding issues for years but had not been successful.
“The pension fund has tried to work with the city over and over and over again, just like other vendors have,” he said. “But the bottom line is, this city is just a bad paymaster…They make promises and they don’t pay. As a result, the pension board had to take another route.”
The Illinois Administrative Code directs the comptroller to seize revenues before they flow to a municipality when a claimant – in this case, the Harvey Police Pension Fund — certifies that the municipality is delinquent in making required pension fund payments.
While the law has been on the books for a couple years, it had not been utilized until now because the comptroller’s office lacked the necessary systems in place to enforce it, Pallasch said.
Now that those processes are in place, the comptroller has begun withholding Harvey’s tax revenues at the request of its police pension fund, which in late January certified more than $7 million in delinquent payments from April 2007 to April 2014, he said.
The fund established its claim by citing a September 2015 judgment against the city for $7,334,181.88 that included $7,027,648 in unpaid pension contributions. An appellate court affirmed the judgment in April 2017, according to the fund’s filing.
“Once it’s certified, the law requires us to redirect the payments to the pension fund — the Comptroller’s Office has no choice,” Pallasch said.
Harvey’s lawyers have argued, both in court and in protest letters to the comptroller, that the city has complied with the pension code and appropriately funded its police pensions.
They wrote in a complaint filed Thursday that if the withheld funds were not released, the city would face, “catastrophic issues regarding safety, security, and maintenance of adequate services to the City’s senior population, four school districts, Ingalls/University of Chicago Hospital and over 120 businesses.”
According to the city’s filing, Harvey is running a government operational deficit of nearly $6 million and has less than $200,000 in its general fund to pay for essential government services. This Friday’s payroll alone amounts to approximately $400,000, with another $300,000 due on employees’ health insurance, the complaint states.
After Mitchell denied Harvey’s emergency motion for a temporary restraining order Monday, the city summoned first responders to the police station and told them to prepare for layoffs because of the comptroller’s actions, officers said.
“I think it’s shameful that the city of Harvey — that has been plagued by the worst municipal mismanagement I’ve ever seen — is blaming their problems on this latest comptroller issue, where the issues that have led to these layoffs are going back years,” Marzullo said. “It’s disgusting what’s taking place.”
The comptroller’s office released a statement Monday asserting that the blame Harvey was assigning it was misplaced, and explaining that the garnishment of city revenues was a requirement under state statute.
“The Comptroller’s Office does not want to see any Harvey employees harmed or any Harvey residents put at risk, but the law does not give the Comptroller discretion in this case,” the statement reads. “The Comptroller’s Office is obligated to follow the law. This dispute is between the retired Harvey police officers’ pension fund and the city of Harvey.”
A lawyer for the Harvey Police Pension Fund declined comment on the dispute Tuesday.
While the Comptroller’s Office has until May 21 to evaluate arguments presented by the city and the pension fund before deciding how to distribute the revenues it’s been withholding, officials would prefer both sides reach some sort of agreement ahead of time.
“The best way forward is for Harvey to negotiate with the pension fund and agree on an amount our office can release for the town to make payroll,” Pallasch said. “We urge a constructive dialogue between both parties that will lead to a positive resolution.”
Court proceedings, which are continuing in parallel with the comptroller’s administrative review, also could impact how the dispute is ultimately resolved, he said.
“We want to give those (other court actions) time to complete,” Pallasch said. “But at some point, there’s an end for us to evaluate the arguments and rule on it.”
Even before this pension issue arose in February, the cash-strapped south suburb had battled “financial constraints” that caused it to miss payroll in January, according to emails obtained by the Southtown.
At the time, city spokesman Sean Howard blamed the issue on a technical glitch and denied the city was experiencing financial hardship.
“We’re good,” he said at the time. “The town isn’t broke, and we’re doing well.”
Payroll issues have continued, however, according to police sources, who said the city was still behind on overtime payments. Clark said the city also had ceased paying its liability, property, auto and dental insurance, the latter of which has forced workers and elected officials alike to foot their own dental bills in recent months.
In February, Harvey residents experienced a disruption in garbage collection after the city failed to pay its waste hauler, and last month officials shuttered the municipal jail after a Southtown report shed light on the facility’s decrepit conditions.
Officials said at the time that the jail’s temporary closure was part of a “citywide Capitol (sic) Improvement program,” not because the facility was in serious disrepair, as state Department of Corrections inspection records indicate.
Clark said Tuesday that he’d drafted a letter to the Cook County State’s Attorney and Illinois Attorney General asking that they conduct an investigation into the city’s finances. He is also hoping to convene a special meeting on the topic of city finances either late this week or early next week.