Mike Spano's Yonkers OT cost-cut plan hits roadblock

NEWS12 WESTCHESTER: The City of Yonkers will temporarily close two firehouses if too many firefighters call in sick on any given day. (Aug. 6, 2012)

A New York State Supreme Court justice has put the brakes on Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano's plan to temporarily close two fire companies in an effort to trim the fire department's overtime costs.

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 out of service 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 on Tuesday.

The judge also ordered the city to maintain a minimum daily staffing level of at least 57 firefighters, and set an Aug. 30 hearing on the matter, according to Barry McGoey, president of Yonkers Fire-Local 628, which challenged the policy.

"This policy is a dereliction of public safety," he 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's spokeswoman, Christina Gilmartin, couldn't be reached for comment Monday night.

In the past, Spano has argued that 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.

"We're still covering with the same amount of trucks and firefighters to each alarm," Gilmartin said earlier Monday.

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, Gilmartin said. At least five trucks will continue to respond to every alarm, she said.

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 Westchester. "Every second when a fire takes place means a lot."

Spano is trying to curb overtime costs in both 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.

"That's a contractual issue that can't be changed at this time," Gilmartin said.

Relations between City Hall, the Yonkers Fire Department and 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.

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