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McKinstry: Five-alarm budget woes in Yonkers

Firefighters from Ladder 71, one of two tower

Firefighters from Ladder 71, one of two tower ladders with a bucket platform in the city, go through daily training exercises and an apparatus check on New School Street in Yonkers. (Aug. 6, 2012) Photo Credit: Leslie Barbaro

After the smoke cleared away from the Yonkers budget a month ago, there was fire.

And now the city is burning through cash.

Mayor Mike Spano, a Democrat who won the job last year with the backing of labor, is squaring off with the Yonkers Fire Local 628 with the hope of squeezing a few million in savings: about $5 million in overtime costs that the mayor says is a result of firefighters abusing an unlimited sick-time perk.

The problem for the mayor is that union has a lot of muscle, and it'll be sure to take this fight to the streets, courtrooms and airwaves. Union leaders also say work shortages on any given day occur because the department is understaffed.

But Spano's bigger problem is that even if he gets some concessions, the city still needs something like 17 times that $5 million amount just to plug holes in next year's budget, which should come in just under $1 billion. The city needs much more in outlying years.

You can't envy the mayor's position, since even commonsense measures like trimming overtime or consolidating the Yonkers Parking Authority meet so much resistance. If he's going to get the city's fiscal house in order, labor, which makes up 80 percent of expenses, won't be immune.

But even those types of cuts won't be enough.

Just this week the mayor tried to pull two trucks -- an engine and a ladder -- out of service per shift if firefighters call in sick on any given tour. The reduction of trucks translates into less OT -- he says five trucks, instead of six, would be able to respond to emergencies.

But the union cried foul, saying this is a safety and contract issue. It filed a grievance, took the city to court and won a temporary restraining order that keeps the trucks, and firefighters, where they were: 57 firefighters per shift citywide. The two sides will reconvene in court on Aug. 30.

"There's a grave risk to the citizens of Yonkers and also firefighters," said Richard Corenthal, an attorney with Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, representing the fire union. "The city is violating the contract and endangering the welfare" of people.

Safety is always a delicate issue and when you take on one of the strongest unions in a union town, you might get burned. Spano knows this, but believes he has a fed-up public behind him. A judge will sort out the contract dispute, but there's also the court of public opinion.

This one example is a microcosm of the city's bigger problems. It can't afford to provide basic services. The broader challenge for Spano is to find the nickels, dimes and dollars, so the city can avoid a state-imposed financial control board, or worse, bankruptcy.

It really is that bad.

A report by the Commission of Inquiry, led by former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch and former state Assemb. Richard Brodsky, concluded that Yonkers has an $89-million hole to fill next year and $465 million over the next three.

Regardless of what happens with the fire department, the mayor is facing more bare-knuckle budget brawls with police, sanitation and teachers -- and the taxpayers who will face higher bills in the coming years. "This is an opportunity to do something," he told me recently.

For too long, cities like Yonkers have relied on one-shots, patchwork and gimmicks -- in Yonkers' case, about $500 million in recent years, or about the same tally as its projected three-year deficit.

Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman from Greenburgh who is now a senior fellow at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, says we're watching the Yonkers chief executive trying to "change the culture and conversation."

That will take time.

"They're already on the right path. The problem is that the path can be long and windy," Brodsky said. "This is just the beginning of the conversation."

Talk is good. But Yonkers needs some action. The alarms have sounded.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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