Employees try to comprehend layoffs

By BRYAN CHAMBERS - The Herald-Dispatch

Jeff Gentner / The Herald-Dispatch

Maintance worker Mike Fannin of the Huntington Wastewater Treatment Plant, is one of 27 employees in jeopary of being layed off. The Sanitary Board votes on Tuesday regarding cutbacks.

HUNTINGTON -- Cheryl McClellan has plans of retiring from the Huntington Sanitary Board.

For the past three years, she’s worked at the board’s office as an administrative assistant. The job pays well, enough at least to support her four children and husband who has just filed for retirement from the Huntington Housing Authority, she said.

But at 10 a.m. today at City Hall, McClellan’s life could change in an instant. That is when Sanitary Board members will consider a massive layoff proposal. McClellan is one of the employees who would lose their jobs.

"I don’t worry about what will happen as much for myself as I do my children," McClellan said. "I feel like life will go on if I get laid off, but not the way I prefer it to. Not in the town I grew up in and not in the town where I thought I would raise my children.

"I’ll have no choice but to leave Huntington, because there’s no other work here for me."

There have been several changes in the layoff proposal in the past two weeks. As of Monday, the number stood at 27 -- 16 union and 11 administrative employees. The Sanitary Board currently employs 75 people, 49 union and 26 administrative.

If adopted, the layoffs, which would result in a cost-savings of approximately $1.2 million this year, would go into effect Oct. 1.

The layoffs are needed, Sanitary Board Executive Director Woody Bare said, because the Sanitary Board has been unable to make bond payments for past capital improvement projects to the West Virginia Water Development Authority. Bond payments totaling $89,000 a month have not been made since July. If action is not taken soon, the WDA will file a complaint to the West Virginia Public Service Commission that could result in a substantial rate increase for Sanitary Board customers, WDA Director Daniel Yonkosky said.

Not making the bond payments also has a negative effect on the city’s bond rating, which determines whether the city can issue bonds in the future.

In the past two months, Huntington City Council has shot down two proposals to raise sewer rates. Bare said the increases were needed to cover bond payments, provide funding for capital improvement projects and continue basic services such as sewer line repairs and cleaning storm drains.

The most recent proposal -- a 24 percent hike that would have raised the average bill of a residential customer from $13.13 to $16.28 -- was rejected by the council in late August.

"Proposing these layoffs is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life," Bare said. "These people do a good job. I like them. I respect them. But, I’m left with no choice."

Bare submitted his resignation Monday as executive director to the Sanitary Board. Mayor David Felinton, who also serves as chairman of the Sanitary Board, said he is not sure now whether the board will vote on the layoffs today.

Bare, employees who stand to be laid off and the employees who would survive the round of job cuts all say that layoffs are not the long-term answer. Bond payments would be made, but nearly every department of the Sanitary Board would suffer. Some even to the point where meeting state regulatory permits would be a daily struggle, said Mike Copley, operations superintendent for the Sanitary Board’s Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Thirteen jobs, eight of which are mechanic positions, would be eliminated at the treatment plant, which currently employs 45 people.

"The primary portion of this plant is more than 40 years old, so it requires constant maintenance," Copley said. "The remaining people would do everything they could to keep up with maintenance, but the time would come where they just wouldn’t be able to keep up."

One of the two work crews that service sewer lines also would be eliminated, along with two of their four supervisors, Bare said.

"If the layoffs are approved, we’re going to violate permits and be faced with fines from the regulatory agencies that oversee us," Bare said. "How often that will occur and how serious it will be remains to be seen."

Mike Fannin, a maintenance mechanic at the plant who would lose his job, said he is still holding onto hope that City Council will eventually realize the need for a rate increase. He, his wife and 4-year-old son are depending on it, he said.

"It’s ridiculous that City Council won’t vote for a $3 monthly rate increase, but they don’t care of 30 or so people lose their jobs," Fannin said. "I’ve got a family to feed, but they just don’t care."

Loretta Covington, manager of administration at the Sanitary Board’s main office, said the workload would be nearly impossible for her reduced staff to handle. Of the eight administrative employees that Covington oversees at the office, seven would be laid off.

"You can’t cut the workforce by more than half at this office and maintain the level of efficiency and accuracy we currently have," Covington said. "That’s a real shame for us, because we take pride in our jobs."

Regardless of Covington’s situation, administrative employees are part of the problem behind the layoffs, said Ronnie Napier, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2531.

"My solution would be to take a hard look at why it takes 26 administrative employees now to do the job and why they make so much money," Napier said. "Despite that, the union is taking the biggest hit with the layoffs."

Administrative salaries were a concern for council members who voted against rate increases. The Sanitary Board has granted four pay raises to all of its administrative employees in the past three years. The net effect has added more than $400,000 annually to the administrative payroll.

According to Sanitary Board records, most administrative employees received a 30 to 40 percent pay increase during the three-year period.

During the time that administrative employees were getting large pay raises, union employees were making concessions with their medical insurance plans that saved the Sanitary Board $260,000 annually, Napier said.

Bare, however, said that cutting administrative employees’ pay now would be "window dressing."

"The magnitude of the cuts we have to make can only be achieved through layoffs," Bare said. "Besides, now that the workload could be more severe, I can’t afford to ask anyone to make concessions."