The cost of complying with an arbitrator’s recent ruling on fire department staffing could be upwards of $500,000 a year, city officials said Thursday. To have guaranteed minimum staffing of 10 firefighters per shift, as the arbitrator ordered, would require the city to hire nine more firefighters, Chief Thomas Passuite said. Barring that, it would have to more than double its annual overtime allowance for the fire department.
“Either way you look at it, we’re looking at a half a million dollars more a year,” he said.
Property owners won’t foot the bill, Mayor Michael Tucker vowed. The city will petition state Supreme Court for review of the arbitrator’s decision, and if the decision is upheld, the cost will be covered by fire service and/or staff cuts, he said.
“I hear through the grapevine some of (the union officers) are bragging, ‘We beat the city’ in arbitration. They’d better hope they lose in court, because if they don’t, the (stuff) is gonna hit the fan. Enough is enough,” Tucker said.
Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association took labor action against the city over its imposition of reduced minimum shift manning in January 2006, claiming the reduction violated its contract by jeopardizing firefighters’ safety on the job.
Arbitrator Dennis J. Campagna ruled for the union last week, ordering the city to restore the 10-man minimum that was the status quo for Lockport Fire Department prior to 2006.
The minimum has been nine men per shift for most of the past three years. In that time, Passuite asserted, no firefighter suffered an injury or potential physical threat due to reduced manning.
For the city, the problem with minimum manning is it drives spending.
The 50-man fire department is organized into four platoons that take turns manning 10- or 14-hour shifts. Given time-off privileges granted the men in the LPFFA contract, even the nine-man shift minimum isn’t being met without calling firefighters in on overtime.
Here’s why: The LPFFA contract allows for up to four firefighters per platoon to be off duty at any time. Three platoons have 12 firefighters while another has 11. Subtract up to 4 from either number; also subtract the number of “unscheduled” absences on a shift, due to sick call-in, injury or military duty; then figure out how many men have to be called in from other platoons, at 1.5 times their hourly pay rate, to meet the minimum manning number.
The 2009 city budget counted on $200,000 in fire overtime costs, but Passuite said by the end of the year, the department will have spent $300,000. Four men are off duty per shift more than half the year, from about May through Christmas; two men are off duty long-term with injury claims; and other unscheduled absences “happen frequently,” he said. “That just adds to it.”
To meet a 10-man minimum without increasing overtime expense would require adding nine more firefighters to the payroll, Passuite said. Base salary and benefit costs average $50,000 to $55,000 per hire. With hiring, each platoon would have 14 men; so when four are off duty, 10 are still scheduled to work.
Schrader: Union dismisses the ‘responsible’ solution
Passuite did not calculate the cost of meeting a 10-man shift minimum on overtime, alone. Off the top of his head, he guessed the annual overtime bill could approach $600,000. That’s three times what the Council budgeted for 2010.
“It would be some outrageous number, much more than the city would be willing to pay for,” he said. “I think the hiring would be cheaper than the overtime, personally.”
It won’t happen, declared 4th Ward Alderman Patrick Schrader, the Council’s liaison to the Fire Board that supervises the department.
“If all six of us (on the Council now) left and all brand new people came in, they wouldn’t agree to add $500,000 spending to the budget. Nobody in their right mind would agree to that,” he said.
Manning minimums are the cause of a long-running argument between city officers and LPFFA. The Fire Board first imposed a nine-man shift minimum in mid-2002 — when the last of eight firefighter retirements took place and the Council chose not to fill the posts — and the act was met with an LPFFA grievance. Then-Mayor Tom Sullivan struck a deal with the union to observe a 10-man minimum temporarily and finance it with overtime charges. Since Tucker has been mayor, several Councils set their sights on getting the overtime bill reduced while also not hiring firefighters.
Proposals by Schrader and Passuite to reorganize the department as three platoons working 24-hour shifts, to keep the shifts covered without automatic overtime, have not been well-received by LPFFA. According to Schrader, the fact that Campagna, the arbitrator, wrote in his ruling that the city and the union should “continue their negotiations” on shift reorganization adds insult to the injury he inflicted by telling the city how to staff its fire department.
“I don’t see how an arbitrator can tell the City of Lockport how to run their business. Why don’t we just let the fire department run their own business and do whatever they want?” he said. “They have no sense of fiscal responsibility; they don’t care about the city. They’ve been offered some very decent things (in contract negotiations) and they just say no, they don’t want to negotiate … In the (24-hour shift scenario) they’d all keep their jobs — put that in capital letters, they’d all keep their jobs — and they’re not interested.”
As of March 2008, LPFFA had filed 30 complaints against the city tied to reduced minimum manning and consequent equipment manning changes ordered by Passuite. Recently it declared “impasse” in its negotiations with the city for a new contract.
LPFFA President Randy Parker declined to comment on any contractual/legal issues between the union and the city late Thursday.
David Blackley, first deputy corporation counsel in charge of city labor matters, said this week the city may challenge the arbitrator’s minimum manning ruling on the basis that Campagna overstepped his bounds. The existing LPFFA contract does not reference specific minimum manning requirements, he said; a solitary, 40-word clause has the city agreeing to “man all equipment with adequate manpower” to assure the safety of firefighters performing rescue duties.