Editorial: Arbitration offers hope in Yonkers firefighters dispute

Yonkers firefighters mingle at the inauguration of Robert Yonkers firefighters mingle at the inauguration of Robert Sweeney as the city's new acting fire commissioner in the mayor's reception room at City Hall. (Aug. 31, 2012) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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The $5-million question in Yonkers remains: Just how many firefighters are needed on a shift?

The union says it's 57, as stated in plain type in its contract with the city. Mayor Mike Spano doesn't see it that way; he wants fewer -- 48 -- but only if firefighters call in sick. He's even threatened to shut down two trucks to save some money as the city burns through cash and faces a $430-million budget hole over four years.

Since the city and the fire union can't agree on the numbers, or more simply, on what the contract says, a loud public relations battle has ensued, with the mayor accusing the union with abuse of sick time that amounts to $8 million for overtime. The union rejects the charges and counters that the mayor is sitting on federal dollars to hire firefighters needed to help with an apparent shortage of manpower.

The five-alarm dispute found its way into court, and after a temporary restraining order that keeps staffing at 57 per shift, and a failed city appeal, the two sides have wisely agreed to settle this issue out of court.

It's clear that the mayor, like many other elected officials around the country, doesn't have much flexibility to cut spending when the city is locked into labor contracts written when times were better. And union members shortsightedly say it's not their problem. A contract is a contract -- the mayor has to live with it. Although the contract has expired, its provisions remain in place under the state's Taylor Law.

Now, they're headed for arbitration over staffing and should begin talks in the coming weeks.

While that sort of conflict resolution has historically favored unions, it ought to help tone down some of the dispute's bitter rhetoric.

Now an arbitrator can douse the flames by balancing the interests of firefighters, the city and the taxpayers. It can't be done in a vacuum, where the city's larger financial challenges aren't a consideration. Not when a financial control board or bankruptcy are looming on the city's horizon.

Balancing these variables is no easy task. But it's one that can't be ignored if Yonkers is ever to get a handle on its fiscal fires.

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