EAST ST. LOUIS July 31 2010 The Rev. Joseph Tracy said he’s tired of going to funerals. And now, he suspects he’ll be going to more of them.
“It’s open field day now,” said Tracy, the pastor of Straightway Baptist Church here. “The criminals are going to run wild.”
The pastor voiced his fear of a spike in crime on Friday at a raucous special City Council meeting at which East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks announced that the city will lay off 37 employees, including about one-third of its police officers.
In total, 19 of the city’s 62 police officers, 11 firefighters, four public works employees and three administrators will lose their job in the layoffs that take effect Sunday.
Parks said the weak economy has robbed the city of badly need money. For example, revenue from the Casino Queen alone was $900,000 below budget expectations last year.
There are no signs of improvement, Parks said.
“I want our citizens to know we have some of the bravest police officers and firefighters in the country,” Parks said. “But we don’t have the money to pay them. We have to have fiscal responsibility.”
City officials wanted police and fire unions to accept a furlough program that would have required employees to take two unpaid days in each twice-monthly pay period. If accepted, emergency responders would have seen a pay cut of about 20 percent for the rest of the year.
But Parks said the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement.
On Friday, he stared at a standing-room only crowd and told his emergency response chiefs words they didn’t want to hear: “Tell your workers to start packing their things.”
The news spurred shouts from the crowd.
“The blood is on your hands,” yelled police Officer Michael Hubbard.
Hubbard said he will be the lone patrolman for East St. Louis’ midnight shift when the cuts take effect.
“This is devastating,” Hubbard said after the meeting.
Police officials say the cuts will mean fewer officers for patrols, investigations and juvenile cases in a city that has been crippled by crime and poverty for decades.
Fire officials said the region should be upset because the department will have fewer people at the ready to fight fires on some of the region’s major highways and bridges.
The police already rely on other agencies to handle some of the heavy case load. For example, the Illinois State Police routinely work on the city’s homicide investigations.
Capt. Steve Johnson of the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department said his agency has no plans to step up its work in East St. Louis.
“We don’t do calls for service in East St. Louis,” Johnson said. “But, if we’re called for assistance, we will help when we can.”
Worries about East St. Louis’ crime rate got little sympathy from Councilman Roy Mosley, who gave a 10-minute speech on Friday blasting the city’s police officers.
“We don’t have the money,” Mosley said. “You lay off when you don’t have the money. The money’s gone.”
Mosley complained that police officers take patrol cars home, park them in other jurisdictions and misuse the city’s gasoline.
“I’m only telling the truth,” he shouted.
The crowd jeered.
“You can see how disrespectful they are,” Mosley said while pointing at the police officers. “You see what they’re doing to me right now.”
Richard V. Stewart Jr., an attorney for the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police union, said Mosley’s claims are untrue.
Stewart said the words amounted to nothing more than “political grandstanding.”
“Unfortunately, this is what I expected,” Stewart said.
The union plans to fight the layoffs and work to get the jobs back.
Bad blood already exists between the two sides. An arbitrator has ruled that the city improperly imposed unpaid furlough days on its employees earlier this year. The city was ordered to pay $500,000 in lost wages.
On Friday, the city approved a proposal to defer bond payments until next year in order to free up $500,000.
“Next year is a different situation,” Mayor Parks said.