WILDWOOD — City commissioners voted unanimously to approve the city’s $23.5 million budget and accompanying $1.089 tax rate, despite hundreds of people filling the Wildwood High School auditorium Wednesday night to oppose the plan, which includes layoffs among the police, fire, support staff and public works employees.
“This will not only hurt the tourist trade ... but it will also hurt those who want to invest in the community,” new resident Ron Villanova said.
Concerns about safety dominated the comments, as others, such as business owner Wally Lerro wondered how the loss of 20 police officers and six firefighters would affect safety in the tourism-dependent town.
“We may hurt our tourism by laying off these police officers,” Lerro said.
The protests at the meeting, which was moved from City Hall to the high school because of the overflow crowd, were preceded by picketing outside City Hall that drew city employees and residents, along with public safety employees from other communities.
Among the protesters was firefighter Jim Grauel, one of those slated for layoffs. His wife, Karree, is a city police officer who also is slated to be laid off.
“It’s very stressful. The tension’s very high,” he said of the effect the layoffs are taking on his family. “It’s our livelihood.”
Jim Grauel said the union offered concessions but the city wouldn’t listen.
“Responsible collective bargaining, that’s what is needed,” he said.
He called the layoffs “the end of Wildwood.”
Deputy Fire Chief Daniel Spiegel told city commissioners that the department’s 16 members carry a heavy burden handling fires, emergency medical responses and fire inspections.
Five layoffs and two pending retirements would leave the department with just nine firefighters in the city. City ordinances allow as many as 18 staff members to be on the Fire Department.
Speigel had the five firemen slated for layoffs come forward in front of the audience to show that they are real people with families, with 11 children between them.
Speigel received a standing ovation as he voluntarily asked for a demotion and reduction in salary to save jobs.
Wildwood Fire Chief Conrad Johnson said the layoffs would mean providing less than a minimum amount of service to the town’s residents.
“The response that we put forward is at best bare minimum right now,” Johnson said.
Before the vote on the budget, commissioner Al Brannen said he had been laid off in the past and knew what it felt like, but he said the city had to find a way to lower taxes.
Brannen credited the Fire Department with negotiating while he was in charge of public safety.
“It breaks my heart. They shouldn’t be part of the layoffs,” he said.
He added that “the firemen gave. The Police Department didn’t want to give a damn thing.”
Mayor Gary DeMarzo said the city has identified 55 positions to be eliminated, but the actual number of layoffs was in the mid-40s.
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