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Editorial: Generous perks a key to Yonkers' money woes

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano speaks at a news

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano speaks at a news conference. (Aug. 28, 2012) Photo Credit: Angela Gaul

You might think that the City of Yonkers already would have people keeping tabs on its employees.

Managers, human resources employees or payroll clerks at City Hall seem like standard monitors on staffing.

But in the complicated back-and-forth rancor over union contracts, overtime and apparent sick leave abuses, it's clear that policing the police and firefighters is no ordinary desk job.

So Mayor Mike Spano has hired a former federal investigator to help him get a handle on staffing practices and policies and root out abuses in the police and fire departments.

In appointing Patrick Shea as his $140,000-a-year special assistant on public safety policy, the mayor says he wants to "rid the city" of workers who abuse perks like unlimited sick time that "drive up overtime and are costing taxpayers millions of dollars each year."

Few could argue with jettisoning bad apples, and past reports -- notably a 2010 inspector general's investigation that concluded firefighters missed 10 tours a year on average -- shed light on a problem, but did little to bring meaningful change.

This may be the city's largest challenge, even with this new appointment.

To his credit, the mayor is admitting his administration needs help and he's wisely gotten it, such as when he tapped former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch and former Assemb. Richard Brodsky for help with the city's $1-billion budget. Their involvement helped articlulate the magnitude of the city's financial problems. And much like the resumes of those two government veterans, Shea's 30 years of experience as an investigator with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and 14 years as director of investigations at American Transit Insurance Co. bring some gravitas to the job.

But Shea has his work cut out for him: Work rules such as unlimited sick time are embedded in union contracts approved in better times by past mayors and city leaders.

Shea can help, but only so much. If Spano wants to curb $20 million in overtime costs (the total for both departments), and stop abuses, he'll have to address staffing and perks in the contracts with unions. That's the long-term way to resolve the problem.