Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the City of Somerville or its employees.
First off, I’d like to say that it’s wonderful to see so many people expressing interest in preserving and improving the West Branch Library. It’s also great news that the City and its firefighters have hammered out an agreement that will avoid the need to make citywide layoffs and wide-ranging service cuts to pay retroactive firefighter compensation.
But over the past couple of days, I have encountered some major misconceptions about this episode – some of which have been actively promulgated by Alderman Gewirtz – and I just can’t sit silent any longer.
To begin with, it’s important to understand the constraints the City faced under the Joint Labor Management Committee process. As was widely reported in the news media, the City was ordered by the JLMC to fund a payment of $4.3 million to the firefighters. The City had to come up with the necessary funding more than half-way into the fiscal year—using monies that were already spoken for in a very lean budget. The Mayor was required by law to submit an appropriation and support the award. He couldn’t publicly comment or express a negative opinion.
The appropriation and payment plan he put together (in consultation with his financial team and city department heads) required some very difficult decisions. Layoffs would be necessary; services would be cut. The challenge, as always in these situations, was to minimize the impacts and spread them across the whole of city government . That was the context for the decision to focus the library’s share of the burden on the West Branch, which is the City’s least-used library facility.
But the West Branch Library was not the only city facility or service in which cuts would have been made if the City had been obligated to go through with funding the original JLMC firefighter award. Budget transfers and layoffs would also have resulted in the closure of the city’s two police substations and the Lowell Street fire station (which, like the West Branch Library, was the least-busy facility of its type). Layoffs would have also occurred in almost every city department – including the Mayor’s Office. Thirty-one critical positions including community police officers would have been eliminated.
So it was disingenuous and misleading of Alderman Gewirtz to ignore that larger picture and to make this all about the West Branch Library.
It was also flat-out wrong of her to allege, as she did in her email message of January 17th, that “there [was] a solution. At the BOA meeting on the 12th, the president of the firefighter union offered to make a concession, and have the award paid out over two years. This could potentially prevent the city from having to make these sorts of layoffs or the closing of the library.” Aside from the fact that she was taking the firefighters budget analysis as completely accurate and implying that the mayor was misrepresenting the city’s finances, Alderman Gewirtz was suggesting that paying the same amount of money in six months’ time would magically eliminate the need to find further economies in the city budget.
I know that all of the folks who wrote or called the Mayor were sincere in their desire to protect the West Branch Library – but I also know that, well before the first call was made or email sent, Mayor Curtatone and union negotiators were already working to resolve their differences and find a genuine solution.
That solution came not as a result of a 48-hour campaign to “save the library” but because the Mayor never gave up trying to find a larger compromise that both the City and the union could live with.
I hope folks stay active in working to support the West Branch Library. The energy generated by Alderman Gewirtz’s call to action is wholesome and helpful. But it didn’t have anything to do with resolving this dispute. There is simply no evidence for Alderman Gewirtz to claim, as she did last night, that pro-library lobbying “had a very important role in this.”
The resolution to this situation was not about saving the West Branch Library – and it certainly wasn’t about Alderman Gewirtz’s newsletter. The key factors in resolving this fiscal challenge were the Mayor’s willingness to make tough decisions and be held accountable for them, combined with the union’s recognition of the true fiscal implications of the JLMC award. When those two factors came together, the union reached out to the Mayor to find a way, as union President Jay Colbert said, to “maintain the integrity of the arbitration award, while addressing the concerns of the city.”