Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano is vowing to cut overtime costs despite a state Supreme Court judge's order barring him from imposing a new policy that would have temporarily closed fire companies to contain fire department spending.
On Monday, Judge John H. LaCava granted a temporary restraining order barring Spano from implementing a new policy that would have kept two fire trucks off the road and temporarily closed two fire companies if less than 54 firefighters showed up for work -- the negotiated minimum staffing level for the city's 18 fire companies -- on any given day.
The policy was set to go into effect Tuesday.
In response to the judge's ruling, Spano said Tuesday morning that Yonkers is "exploring all legal options as well as other operational changes we can make to fill the $5 million gap which the court has now created."
"It is an order for us to pay higher taxes. It is an order to pay for the continual abuse of sick leave. It is an order to pay unsustainable overtime costs," he said. "We need to tackle and resolve this sooner rather than later, or our city will never be financially stable."
In his ruling, LaCava also ordered the city to maintain a minimum daily staffing level of 57 firefighters, and set an Aug. 30 hearing on the matter. Lawyers for the city and fire union are expected to file legal briefs this week.
"This policy is a dereliction of public safety," Barry McGoey, president of Yonkers Fire-Local 628, which filed the court challenge to Spano's overtime-cutting policy, told Newsday Monday night. "And it puts the public at risk."
McGoey and other officials blame the overtime costs on a high number of vacancies in the fire department -- 37 unfilled positions as of this month -- and said the problem could be solved if the city hired new firefighters. They say there is federal grant money for hiring nearly a dozen entry-level firefighters, but Spano has refused to tap into it.
"They're thumbing their noses at federal money, while complaining about overtime costs," he said. "If the city hired new firefighters, the overtime would be reduced."
Spano says the minimum staffing rules incorporated in the city's contract with firefighters are unrealistic, keeping too many firefighters on duty. Yonkers officials have said the new policy would have cut fire department overtime costs by about $5 million a year, with no impact on public safety, because responses to calls would not change.
Spano also says he has concerns about the federal grant because the city would have to pick up the tab after five years.
Pulling the trucks off the road would effectively reduce the minimum number of firefighters needed for that day, city officials said, and as a result the city wouldn't have to call up more firefighters at time-and-a-half overtime pay.
The two firehouses affected by the new policy are Ladder Co. 71, housed in the department's headquarters on New School Street, and Engine No. 312, which works out of Fire Station 12 on Fortfield Avenue.
If more than six firefighters called in sick -- the minimum staffing level for a ladder truck -- the city would take a truck from one of those two companies off the road for that day. Because each company has only one truck, the company would close for the day, and firefighters remaining on duty from that company would be transferred to another company until staffing returns to normal.
Only when the staffing falls below 48 firefighters on any given day would substitutes be called in on overtime, city officials have said. At least five trucks will continue to respond to every alarm, with a sixth backup truck.
Still, Spano's cost-cutting plan worried some Yonkers residents, like Ruth Taits, who lives near Ladder Co. 71.
"If we don't have the firemen here and they're going to come 2 to 3 minutes late. These people are going to be overcome with smoke and die," the woman told News12. "Every second when a fire takes place means a lot."
Spano is trying to curb overtime costs in the fire and police departments. Those costs reached more than $8 million last year. His efforts have been met with opposition from union leaders who argue that public safety budgets shouldn't be cut. Firefighters have unlimited sick days. Spano has accused the department of abusing the generous policy.
Going into the current fiscal year, Yonkers faced an $89 million budget deficit, which forced Spano to cut spending by 10 percent and increase property taxes and water rates. The city's budget deficit is projected to rise to more than $420 million by 2016.
In his preliminary budget, Spano has proposed lowering the minimum staffing levels from 54 to 48 firefighters before replacements can be called in at time-and-a-half pay, a move that would have trimmed department costs by $6 million.
But those changes appear to require changes in union-negotiated contracts, and labor leaders strongly oppose the move.
Relations between City Hall, firefighters and fire union leaders have soured amid tense contract negotiations.
One union, the Yonkers Uniformed Fire Officers Association, recently filed a lawsuit against the city, asking a judge to overturn Spano's decision to eliminate overtime for battalion chiefs and disband the department's safety division.
City firefighters have been working without a contract since 2009. Negotiations are set to resume in the coming weeks.