The cards are on the table

GLOVERSVILLE — With Mayor Dayton King’s end-of-February deadline for renegotiating the city’s fire department contract looming — it should come as no a surprise that an active fire fighter, Bill Rowback Jr., has declared himself a candidate for mayor. 

Gloversville’s fire department contract has been expired since 2013, but, thanks to New York state’s Triborough Amendement to the Taylor Law, all of the provisions of the contract, including the controversial and expensive minimum manning clause, remain in place until a new deal is agreed to by both sides. King, backed by the Common Council, has said if the fire department’s public employee union does not agree to drop the minimum manning clause the city will retain a marketing firm to help promote a public referendum to transform Gloversville’s professional fire department into a part-professional, part volunteer squad. 

At stake is millions of dollars of taxpayer money. According to city budget figures the minimum manning clause, which requires Gloversville to have seven firefighters on duty at all times, helped to account for about $203,000 of the $244,000 the city spends on overtime for employees in 2016. That’s because every time an on-duty firefighter calls out sick or has vacation time, the city has to bring another firefighter in to maintain the minimum staffing and they have to pay time-and-a-half to do so. Gloversville spends about $3.1 million on its 29-member professional fire department. 

So now we have 28-year veteran firefighter Bill Rowback Jr. running for mayor, promising to make Gloversville Great Again, or words to that affect. Some of the things he’s proposed include user-fees for some, although apparently not all, of the city’s non-profits, the creation of a garbage transfer station somewhere in the city, an 11 p.m. curfew for people under 16, return of the Littaur Pool, a trolley system and some other general ideas about sprucing up the city and restoring the city’s manufacturing base.

While some of Rowback’s ideas are interesting, no one should lose sight of what this election will really be about: a clear-cut choice between continuing the status quo with respect to Gloversville’s high property taxes and extremely expensive public services, or liberating the city, at least in part, from the yoke of a system that requires them to pay for a level of fire department protection they no longer need. 

Gloversville, as well as the city of Johnstown, are both depopulated areas in which the local public employee unions have been able to maintain the status quo in terms of services offered for decades, even as the cities’ inflation-adjusted property tax bases and median income levels have dwindled. Without economic growth, or appropriate levels of state-aid, the cost of maintaining the ever-increasing salaries, health insurance costs and the extremely generous pensions of our public employees has become a colossal burden that is one of the key factors that holds this area back. 

As I like to remind people, the median household income in Gloversville, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, using numbers from 2015, is only about $35,000, which means half of the households are taking in only that or less. The starting salary for a Gloversville firefighter is $39,636, which is slightly more than what starting firefighters make in New York City, $39,370, according to nyc.gov. That is nothing short of madness. No rational society would ever choose to do things this way, and this area didn’t choose it either. Gloversville suffers under the legacy of having created a full set of public services at its economic peak in the ’50s and ’60s and then New York state changed the rules, allowing public employees to unionize in 1968 and then giving them the Triborough Amendement in 1982, which froze all of the contract goodies, like the minimum manning clause, in place essentially forever, unless voters decide to do something about it with a referendum. 

I don’t know if they will. Firefighters are often rightly viewed as heroic individuals possessed of great physical courage ,and although many volunteer firefighters effectively provide a usually adequate service of the same courageous acts without being paid a salary, the public may decide the professional firefighters deserve every penny they’re getting, no matter what it costs. 

Rowback is running for mayor as a Republican, and my guess is he has a better than fair chance of at least getting the endorsement of the Gloversville City Republican Committee. Another factor that holds the area back is the stranglehold local public employee union’s have long maintained over the Republican party city committees, which help to choose the candidates who are then elected and doll out the public’s money back to the unions and protect their contracts in an un-virtuous cycle, but usually this is done rather sotto voce, nobody says they are running as the candidate of the fire and police departments, and Rowback hasn’t done that either, but he surely is.

The great thing about Gloversville’s 2017 elections will be that all of the cards are now on the table. The masks are off, everyone’s interest is laid bare. We’ll see how the electorate responds.

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