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Discussion over salary for first responders in Lawrence turns into a heated debate

Posted at 12:07 AM, Oct 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-26 11:47:12-04

LAWRENCE — A budget decision in Lawrence that the city's common council said may have saved a lot of public safety jobs, is not leaving everyone feeling happy about it.

First responders wanted a raise, but it didn't exactly happen the way some envisioned it.

On Monday, a heated debate over pay sparked a larger concern for police and fire departments in Lawrence.

The City of Lawrence was already $3.6 million over in the budget. Although cuts had to be made, the council said they wanted to make sure this didn't impact public safety. What was supposed to be a solution, did not go over well with a few officials.

"I am tired of public safety workers who do not think about the constituents of this city as well. We love our public safety workers, and we fight for them, but we also love and fight for our constituents," said William Giles, Councilor of District 1.

An expedited budget approval just days before the state's deadline.

"So, we have until November 1st at midnight. It had to be voted on tonight or it would revert to the 2021 budget which benefited nobody," said Shawn Denney, Councilor At-Large.

That may have helped the city reach its desired budget, but potentially crippling public safety.

"I don't like the outcome. One of the biggest things is they talk about this 5% bonus that doesn't affect the firefighters' pension and it's hard to recruit people on a bonus that may or may not happen," said Chief Dino Batalis with Lawrence Fire Department.

The approved budget would direct American Rescue Plan funds to cover the cost of a one-time 5% income bonus for all Lawrence public safety employees. A one-time bonus - not a traditional raise in pay.

"I have some councilors they don't like the word defund, but when you take money from police and fire that is defunding. If there's a new word for that I'd sure like to know what that word is," said Chief Batalis.

The council said every year they give public safety between a 3-5% raise. This year in hopes to have a balanced budget, they went to the mayor about the $3.6 million he told them it was already wrapped up in capital projects for next year.

"There are capital projects in 2022 that we don't need to do, we could hold off on those until 2023 and if the funds are there, we'll make sure we can do those later. The priority is our public safety officers, our police our fire, and our city employees. They need to be taken care of first and then we can come back to those projects," said Denney.

Chief Batalis said moving forward he hopes the council could come together and see what they need before they start taking funds from departments every time, they must make budget cuts.

Denney said that until now, they were not aware of the issues within public safety. They hope that next year they will be able to discuss the budget sooner, by sitting with the fire and police chief to be clear and transparent about what they need.