The St. Clair Township Board opted Tuesday to allocate the township’s road district enough money to employ four employees rather than five as the highway commissioner has wanted for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
The budget vote comes after the township’s five highway employees were laid off last week, prior to the end of the current fiscal year, which ends March 31.
The vote was 4-1, with Trustees Mary Carroll, Jaynie Wells and Keith Sturgis, along with Township Supervisor Dave Barnes opting to have enough money for four employees and more money, about $550,000, set aside for road construction.
Trustee Greg Hipskind was the lone no vote.
“I think we’ve made the case that the township (road district) is in need of a fifth worker,” Hipskind said. “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done, and taking that away is not going to help the people at all.”
St. Clair Township Highway Commissioner Skip Kernan had asked trustees to transfer money from a road construction line item into a line item that pays employees’ wages after that line item for the 2015-16 budget had run out of money. Trustees refused, and the township’s road department employees had to be laid off.
Carroll advocated for more road construction work in the township.
“I’m trying to protect the taxpayers too,” Carroll said.
“I have a feeling taxpayers would prefer to have their roads repaired rather than swept,” Carroll added.
Kernan said after the vote, he planned to bring back all five employees when the fiscal year begins on April 1 and expected a lawsuit to be filed as well.
“They have a contract,” Kernan said. “I imagine their union will get involved in this because I would think they (the township) will be paying someone else the work they can do at a lesser work.”
Kernan said his employees rip out streets pour concrete, clear drainage ditches, fill potholes, plow streets, removed downed trees, among other things.
“There’s so much that goes into this, the people that don’t go out and do it, don’t have a clue and want to dictate to me,” Kernan said.
Kernan even wanted to reduce how much he would spend on road construction to $250,000 in order to have the five employees.
Kernan said maintenance his crews provide would help save money in the long run and he campaigned on restoring services.
Under the previous highway commissioner, the number of employees in the road district had been reduced.
Before the board could have a 45-minute discussion on its budgets for the year, there was a public input session that lasted about an hour and 15 minutes.
Among those to speak was County Board Member Bob Trentman.
“Skip has done a good job ... I just want to see roads being swept, cracks being filled,” Trentman said.
Mike Greenfield, who is one of the laid off highway department workers, said the department has always had five employees and they are all needed when workers are pouring concrete.
Some people also criticized Kernan for going over budget on his wages for the current fiscal year.
“When you have a budget, you have to stay within that budget,” said Theresa Peters.
Before the formal public hearing on the township budgets, Kernan even held an informational meeting to push his case, in which he called the layoffs a “deliberate act of sabotage” to eliminate the road district.
“It is a proven fact you get more done with employees” than with contractors, Kernan said.