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Editorial: Settle Yonkers fire department issues out of court

Yonkers firefighters responded to a warehouse fire on

Yonkers firefighters responded to a warehouse fire on Saw Mill River Road. (May 17, 2012) Photo Credit: NEWS 12

Five million dollars doesn't seem like a lot to trim when you consider that Yonkers' budget is more than $955 million.

But the city’s bid to cut that much from the Fire Department’s $54-million budget has created an impasse that might need to be resolved by a judge, since Yonkers and its firefighter union don’t even agree on a minimum manning provision in the contract.

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano and the union are squaring off in court over just how much the mayor can cut. Spano, in an effort to reduce the department’s $8 million in overtime, tried to remove two trucks — an engine and ladder — from each shift earlier this week. That would mean fewer firefighters needed to operate those trucks, and would reduce the need to keep people on overtime when other firefighters call in sick.

At issue is the minimum manning required to keep citizens and firefighters safe. The union says it’s 57 firefighters per shift, and that figure is based on having four firefighters, including an officer, on each truck. The city wants 48 per shift, but only when firefighters call in sick. Otherwise, the number would remain as it is, at 57, in a contract that expired in 2009.

The union, which says it is understaffed by roughly 10 percent and not abusing sick leave, took the city to court and won a temporary restraining order; the city must maintain staffing and operations as they are now. The two sides return to court on Aug. 30.

So here is the $5-million question: Just how many firefighters are needed per shift to maintain safety for residents and themselves? Unfortunately, the two sides don’t agree.

Minimum manning is not an issue unique to Yonkers. Such requirements aren't always written into contracts, but when they are, the mandates can deny municipalities the flexibility they need to run operations efficiently. For cities like Yonkers facing tough financial straits, that's a real problem.

This budget and safety issue requires flexibility and collaboration. While it’s best not to write staffing levels into the contract, it’s also not a decision to be made solely by elected officials. Fire commissioners, chiefs and union leaders must be involved.

Saving money on firefighter overtime won’t fill Yonkers’ very deep financial hole, but the fireworks over this single issue show how difficult change can be.

The city and union are to resume contract negotiations in September. Staffing will be part of what will certainly be aggressive talks over wages and benefits. As will the city’s interest in taking advantage of a federal grant to pay for new firefighters, which could ease some of these staffing and overtime issues in the short term.

Public safety and the welfare of firefighters are vital. Staffing decisions shouldn't be left to a judge. They are best made when city and the fire department figure it out together.