Fifty Methuen police officers — more than half the force — could be laid off in early March unless funding is restored to the department, officials said Thursday.
Methuen Police Chief Joseph Solomon said officers began to receive layoff notices on Thursday. Solomon said the imbroglio stems from a dispute over a superior officers union contract that led to his department being stripped of $1.8 million this fiscal year.
“It’s not only crazy, it’s dangerous and it’s unnecessary,” said Solomon during a phone interview Thursday night.
He said if the City Council puts the money back into his department’s budget, the layoffs could be avoided. There are also civil service hearings for the affected officers next month, when an independent arbitrator could reverse the layoffs for lack of just cause, he said.
Otherwise, the layoffs would take effect March 1.
The department has 94 officers total, including the position of chief, Solomon said. The layoffs would be all patrolmen, he said, and the cuts would mean the elimination of the department’s drug and traffic units, school resource officers, community policing programs, and detectives.
The police department in the working-class city of 50,000 on the New Hampshire border would essentially offer no services other than answering and responding to 911 calls, Solomon said.
“I’ve never seen this anywhere in the United States,” he said.
Paul J. Fahey, chief of staff for Methuen Mayor James P. Jajuga, said the current predicament has its roots in a disagreement last year over a contract with the Methuen Police Superior Officers Association, a group of about two dozen higher-ranking officers, including sergeants, lieutenants, and captains. Fahey said Jajuga’s office had inherited a contract with that union from the previous administration wherein police captains could have made a whopping $432,295 a year.
“It was astronomical, there’s no other way to describe it,” he said.
Jajuga’s office discovered the eye-popping ramifications of the contract during a fiscal analysis, Fahey said. The contract was never honored, he said, and the administration negotiated a new contract with the union, whereby captains stood to make about $130,000 base salary, which would work out to about $180,000 annually once certain benefits and stipends were taken into account.
There was a snag, however: The new contract couldn’t get City Council approval last summer.
In not approving the contract, the council also pulled $1.8 million out of the police budget for this fiscal year, placing it in a reserve fund because the council did not get concessions from the mayor’s office, Fahey said.
“It’s a potential public safety emergency,” said Fahey of the situation. “We need to fix what’s right in front of us.”
If the City Council does not approve a transfer of funds to the police department’s budget, Fahey said, the city is going to have to proceed with the layoffs. The solution, he said, is simple.
“Reinstate the funding,” he said.
Methuen City Council Chairwoman Jennifer Kannan said Thursday she has recused herself from the matter as she has family on the force.
Messages left with three other councilors were not immediately returned Thursday night.