Union balks at Spano bid for new firefighters

NEWS12 WESTCHESTER: Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano's plan to hire more firefighters will require some concessions from the firefighters union. (Aug. 12, 2012)

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano said Sunday he is willing to hire up to 35 new firefighters to beef up the department and reduce overtime costs, but he wants reduced pay and benefits for the new hires.

"We want to hire these firefighters and we have the money to do it, but not at the current rate," Spano told Newsday on Sunday. "We're still going to offer a generous contract, but we need to give the city and its taxpayers some relief."

Spano, who is in the midst of tense contract negotiations with the city's firefighters union, wants union leaders to agree to concessions that would lower the $70,996 starting pay for Yonkers firefighters -- which he argues is 30 percent higher than New York City firefighters -- increase the workload and reduce benefits for newly hired firefighters.

Spano said that because of contract negotiations he couldn't specify a lower salary or benefit reduction target, but he said it would still be a better package than in other area cities.

Barry McGoey, president of Yonkers Fire-Local 628, called Spano's proposal "inappropriate" and accused him of trying to negotiate in public what he should be doing anyway to maintain the Fire Department's required manpower levels.

"The proper place for discussions like this is the negotiating table, not in public," he told Newsday. "We do not negotiate contracts in exchange for filling ordinary attrition in the department."

McGoey and other officials blame the overtime costs on a high number of vacancies in the Fire Department -- 37 unfilled positions as of August -- and said the problem could be solved if the city hired new firefighters. They say there is federal grant money for hiring dozens of entry-level firefighters, but Spano has until now refused to tap into it.

Spano's proposal comes after a week of back-and-forth legal wrangling between the city and union leaders over Spano's efforts to reduce overtime costs in the Fire Department.

On Monday, Judge John H. LaCava granted a temporary restraining order barring Spano from implementing a new policy that would have kept up to two fire trucks out of service and closed two West Side companies if fewer than 57 firefighters showed up for work -- the negotiated minimum staffing level for the city's 18 fire companies -- on any given day.

The city challenged that ruling before a state appellate court on Thursday, but a judge refused to overrule the order.

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. Union leaders said the move would have left the city in jeopardy.

Spano is trying to curb overtime costs that reached more than $8 million last year in the fire and police departments. His efforts have been met with opposition from union leaders, who argue that public safety budgets shouldn't be cut and the city could find other expenditures to trim from its $957 million to make up the chronic revenue shortfalls.

This year alone, Yonkers faced an $89 million 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.

Spano had proposed lowering the minimum staffing levels from 57 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 that move would have required changes in union-negotiated contracts, and Spano abandoned that plan amid union opposition.

City firefighters have been working without a contract since 2009.

The two sides are due back in court Aug. 30 for a hearing on the union's legal challenge to Spano's policy.

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