City Reimbursed Former Councilwoman for Furlough Days Imposed on Municipal Workers
Monday, October 22, 2012 • 12:08am
PATERSON, NJ – Two weeks after retiring, former Councilwoman Vera Ames-Garnes in July received $3,312 as reimbursement for non-paid furlough days that she previously voted in favor of imposing on municipal employees, according to city records.
Ames-Garnes was Paterson’s only city elected official to get paid for the furlough days, the records show. During the past two years, resolutions approved by the City Council required hundreds of Paterson employees – almost all of them except police officers and firefighters – to take 20 days off without pay to help resolve the city’s budget problems.
City Business Administrator Charles Thomas said the city reimbursed Ames-Garnes because he said the furloughs were voluntary for city council members. But the October 26, 2010 city council resolution imposing the first wave of furloughs does not describe them as voluntary. In fact, the document uses the word “mandatory” three times to describe the furloughs.
In an interview with PatersonPress.com, Ames-Garnes initially said she never voted in favor of the furloughs. That was true of the 10 furlough days imposed during the 2012 fiscal year. Ames-Garnes was on sick leave when that vote took place. But city records show she and seven colleagues had voted in favor of the 10 furlough days for the 2011 fiscal year.
“After 26 years, I would not try to take anything from anybody,’’ Ames-Garnes said when asked about the reimbursement. “They took taxes out and everything.’’
Four of Ames-Garnes’ former city council colleagues said they were not aware that she had been reimbursed for the furlough days. One of them, Rigo Rodriguez, said he thinks she should return the money to the city. Some said they thought the furloughs were mandatory for council members. Others said they felt it was only fair for council members to share the sacrifice they were asking rank-and-file employees to accept.
“This needs to be looked into,’’ said Council President Anthony Davis. “I shouldn’t be learning about this from a phone call from a reporter.’’
Davis said his understanding was that all council members agreed to the furloughs. "No one had a problem with it,'' he said. "We wanted to show that we were willing to do what needed to be done.''
“As far as I knew, they were mandatory,’’ Councilman Andre Sayegh said of the furloughs. “I didn’t object.’’
“I didn’t know that an individual person could opt out,’’ said Councilman William McKoy. “I thought we were either in or out.’’
“That’s totally unfair,’’ said Rodriguez. “If we all voted for it, then I believe it was mandatory.''
Rodriguez said the city set a dangerous precedent by giving reimbursing Ames-Garnes for the furlough days. "If they’re going to give her the money back, why shouldn’t they give it back to anybody who asks for it?’’ he asked,
PatersonPress.com obtained confirmation of the reimbursement to Ames-Garnes by filing a request for information under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act in August. The information provided by the city shows she was paid for 17 furlough days. It’s not clear why the reimbursement covered 17 days and not all 20 that had been imposed.
Ames-Garnes said she sought reimbursement for the furlough time after she applied for unemployment compensation for those days and the state labor department denied her request. “I was shocked,’’ she said. “All these years, I thought I was eligible and it turns out I wasn’t. We’re not regular employees.’’
The former councilwoman said she then took the letter from the labor department to Thomas to find out what she was entitled to receive. As a result, she said, the city provided her the $3,312 reimbursement for the furlough days.
When asked why she was the only council member to get reimbursed for the furlough days, Ames-Garnes said, “I guess the rest of them figured, ‘Why bother?’ They have two or three or four jobs. This is all that I have.’’
In order to impose the furloughs, which officials had projected would save the city about $1.5 million over two years, Paterson needed help from its employee labor unions. The unions representing police officers and firefighters did not agree to the furloughs; so those employees did not have to take them. But all other city labor unions consented. As a result, on 20 days between January 2011 and June 2012, city government basically shut down for the furloughs.
Back in 2010, officials said the council needed to pass a resolution on the furloughs partly to cover employees who were not part of any of the unions, including the council members themselves.
As it turns out, officials said, state law on municipal officials’ salaries prevents the furloughs from being imposed on the people in four positions – city clerk, chief financial officer, tax assessor and tax collector.
The city never took the furlough money from City Clerk Jane Williams-Warren, officials said. Chief Financial Officer Anthony Zambrano voluntarily agreed to have the furlough days deducted from his pay, officials said. Meanwhile, the tax collector, Kathleen Gibson, and the tax assessor, Matthew Rinaldi, who no longer works for the city, were initially included in the furlough program and then removed from it when the law came to light, officials said. Gibson was reimbursed $223 in April 2011 and Rinaldi $2,423 in September 2011, city records show.
It was not clear why Ames-Garnes did not receive her reimbursement until after she left office.
“Councilwomen Ames represented that she was not present and did not agree to volunteer participation in a furlough,’’ Thomas said in response to questions from PatersonPress.com. “She further stated that if she was present she nonetheless would not have participated due to her personal financial status.”