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updated: 1/12/2010 5:18 PM

Wheaton eliminates 17 positions

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Wheaton has eliminated 17 positions to reduce costs and address a projected $1.5 million shortfall in the city's budget.

Officials confirmed Tuesday that 12 employees have been laid off and five vacant positions won't be filled. The move is expected to save about $1.16 million.

"It's horrible," Councilman John Prendiville said of the layoffs, which started Friday. "These are people with families. They have bills to pay. It's extremely hard for us to cut these positions."

Prendiville said all the departing employees are "quality people" who performed their jobs well. "This is purely a budgetary move," he said.

The layoffs came just weeks after Mayor Michael Gresk said "huge cuts" would be made, despite a decision to boost the city's property tax levy by nearly 7 percent.

On Tuesday, Gresk repeated his concern there will be a noticeable reduction in services. The cuts include 6.5 jobs in the police department, one in the fire department and four in the public works department.

"I think you will see a slower reaction time to things like permitting, snow plowing, tree removal," Gresk said. "It's not unlike your lifestyle at home. All of us are doing more with less. There's just fewer people doing the job with us than there were three years ago."

Last January, council members addressed a budget shortfall by increasing the city's sales tax and slashing $3 million in expenses, including canceling $1.3 million in capital projects and eliminating 17 full-time positions.

Then, in July, council members learned revenues weren't growing enough to support Wheaton's existing level of employees.

The trend continued through the end of the year as revenues from sources such as motor fuel and sales taxes failed to meet projections.

"The side of the equation that's in trouble here is revenue," Gresk said. "We're cutting expenses because revenue has incredibly decreased because of the state of the economy."

In December, council members responded by setting Wheaton's tax levy - the share of the budget paid for by property owners - at $18.1 million, including $3.5 million for debt service. That total is nearly 7 percent more than what the city could collect last year.

As a result, the owner of a $300,000 house will pay about $28 more per year to the city.

Still, the higher levy and the job cuts won't be enough to completely eliminate the projected $1.5 million deficit in the 2010-11 budget.

So council members are considering whether to reinstate the vehicle sticker program or increase the utility tax on natural gas and electricity. A final decision on both ideas is expected before the next fiscal year begins May 1.

And unless things turn around, officials aren't ruling out the possibility of more cuts in 2011.

"Looking forward to next year, our pension costs will go up," Prendiville said. "Our union contract raises will take effect, unless we can convince them otherwise. That will leave us with another shortfall."