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Negotiations over Fire Dept. staffing to heat up

Firefighters OT cost city more than $1.2M over 6 years

December 9, 2013
By LEVI PASCHER , The Leader Herald

GLOVERSVILLE - City officials and firefighters expect to negotiate the firefighters' minimum staffing requirements, which some officials say are contributing to hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual overtime costs.

The city spent more than $1.2 million on overtime costs in the Fire Department from 2007 to 2012, according to figures The Leader-Herald obtained in a Freedom of Information Law request.

Much of the overtime expense has been attributed by city officials to terms in the contract that state the department must have a minimum of seven firefighters working at the fire station in a given day.

Every time an employee is off for sickness, vacation, injury or special duties, another firefighter must cover that shift and keep the department at the minimum staffing of seven.

"The city of Gloversville made a mistake many years ago when they allowed a minimum staffing clause and a no layoff clause in the Fire Department," Mayor Dayton King said. "A private business could not survive doing this, and we cannot either."

Members of the council and the mayor said they hope the minimum staffing can be reduced from seven firefighters on duty to five firefighters in future negotiations.

"We are locked into that expense, but hopefully, we can negotiate to have that reduced during negotiations," said 6th Ward Councilman Wrandy Siarkowski. "There has to be a happy medium that works for both sides."

Fifth Ward Councilman Jay Zarrelli said he is "heavily in favor" of the minimum manning being reduced to five.

"Establishing safe daily staffing levels is an element of the negotiation process between the firefighters and the city of Gloversville and it is established by contract agreement," said Fire Chief Beth Whitman-Putnam. "It is anticipated that daily staffing levels will be a topic in upcoming negotiations."

Johnstown costs

The city of Johnstown spent $123,674 on Fire Department overtime costs from 2007 to 2012, according to information The Leader-Herald obtained from that city.

Johnstown operates on a four-man minimum staffing system.

Gloversville has a considerably larger population than Johnstown. Recent census figures show Gloversville has a population of 15,388, while Johnstown has 8,559 residents.

EMS calls

King said the majority of calls the city Fire Department responds to are EMS calls.

"Many times, we beat the Fulton County [ambulance service] to the calls because they are tied up on other calls or do not have adequate staffing levels," King said.

Over a one-year period - from?October 2012 to October 2013 - Gloversville spent 1,346 hours responding to EMS calls, excluding vehicle accidents with injury, according to documents. The department spent 108 hours responding to accidents with injuries.

In 2010, King issued a memo instructing firefighters to no longer respond to EMS calls.

However, King said a short time after that he was advised the EMT training for the firefighters is paid for by the state Department of Health because the department responds to EMS calls. He said the city would lose that funding if it didn't continue to respond to EMS calls.

Meanwhile, in that one-year period, 100 hours were spent responding to building fires and another 424 hours were spent on service calls. The department has spent a lot of time responding to smoke and carbon monoxide detector alarms in which no danger was present. According to the figures, a total of 863 hours were spent on incidents where no carbon monoxide or fire was present.

History of reductions

Whitman-Putnam said since 2003, the department has reduced the overall number of firefighters, eliminating four positions in both 2003 and 2011. She said the initial reduction in 2003 was at a time when the city had a deficit that exceeded $1 million.

Also in 2003, Whitman-Putnam said, the Fire Department agreed to maintain daily staffing levels despite the additional reduction of overall personnel.

"Despite the reduction, daily staffing levels are maintained to provide safe levels of protection for the public as well as firefighters and to avoid a reduction in services to the community," Whitman-Putnam said.

She said as a result, firefighters are assigned extra shifts and are paid at the straight-time rate, not an overtime rate. Whitman-Putnam said that is used when staffing levels fall below the seven-person minimum by one position due to contractual time off or long-term illness or injury.

City Commissioner of Finance Bruce Van Genderen said the first person to come in to cover the seven-man minimum is paid at a safety-staffing rate, which is straight time, but if another employee has to come in to reach seven, that person is paid at the overtime rate.

According to the documents, from 2009 to 2012, GFD has spent a total $325,811 on straight-time safety staffing, in addition to the $529,424 in overtime pay in the same period.

In 2011, Whitman-Putnam said, the department agreed to a second reduction in personnel by going from 32 to 28 firefighters, a number the department is still at.

She said with this reduction, firefighters also forfeited one-fourth of their contractual time off; to use their remaining time off, safety staffing and overtime has been required more often.

She said to date, the department has voluntarily cut eight positions, which equates to 22.2 percent of the department's firefighters.

"There has been a substantial reduction in payroll and benefit costs that would be incurred with more employees," Whitman-Putnam said, noting overtime has been the affordable solution for the city. "At the time of both agreements, in 2003 and 2011, the mayor, the Common Council and the finance commissioner were involved in the decision-making process and were fully aware of the overtime and safety staffing costs that would be associated with the overall personnel reduction."

Possible changes weighed

King said while the overtime figures are large totals, paying for the overtime is better for the city than paying for more firefighters.

"While it is true we are paying more money out in overtime costs, we are actually saving taxpayers' money by not paying for more salaries, health care, pensions and other costs," the mayor said.

He said the average cost for a GFD member who is not a captain or battalion chief is $102,000.

King said he respects the work the Fire Department does, but he said the city needs to look at ways to increase revenue for the department to offset costs, or look at reducing costs.

He also said since the department spends so much time on EMS calls, he is open to doing more research on the firefighters getting paid to run EMS.

"We are subsidizing the [Ambulance Service of Fulton?County] and we need to have a conversation with them about getting compensated for that or look at taking that over," King said. "We have talked to them before about getting paid for responding, but they weren't interested. We just really have to define what the Gloversville Fire Department's role is - is it to fight fires or is it to respond to any emergency? We have to figure out how that is going to work."

Gloversville Firefighters Association President Brandt Minkler said the union has been willing to negotiate the issue of staffing since the contract ended Dec. 31, 2012, but he said the city will have to determine the level of service it wants to maintain.

He said having fewer people on staff would make the response times to an emergency more difficult.

"Less people on shift every day is going to affect the level of service we can provide the city," Minkler said. "Time is everything, and our response time to the scene is currently averaging about two minutes, depending where it is in the city. That allows us time to stop fires when they are very small, which you may not hear about, but if we didn't have that immediate response, they could have easily became one of the large structure fires."

He said since the contract ended, the negotiations between the union and city haven't happened.

"The city has not reached out at all regarding negotiations," Minkler said.

He said reducing the minimum would be possible through negotiations, but removing it would not be possible due to the safety of the city and firefighters.

"The men and Chief Whitman-Putnam are true professionals who come to work each day prepared to deal with the worst possible situations," King said. "I have never had a concern with that; my concern has always been and always will be focused on being able to sustain our costs."

Overtime expenses

Below is a comparison of the yearly overtime expenses for the city of Johnstown and Gloversville fire departments, according to information from the Glove Cities.

2007 - Gloversville, $205,618; Johnstown, $14,609.

2008 -Gloversville, $188,918; Johnstown, $19,842

2009 - Gloversville, $127,821; Johnstown, $23,225

2010 - Gloversville, $175,374; Johnstown, $7,965

2011 - Gloversville, $253,114; Johnstown, $35,457

2012 - Gloversville, $298,926; Johnstown, $22,576

Six-year totals - Gloversville, $1.25 million; Johnstown, $123,674



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