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Union: Talks between Yonkers, firefighters break down

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano introduces members of the

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano introduces members of the newly appointed Yonkers Commission of Inquiry on Finances at a press conference at City Hall. (April 5, 2012) Photo Credit: Nancy Siesel

Informal contract talks between Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano and the city's firefighters have broken down, a union official said Monday.

The city's firefighters have been without a contract since 2009, when the previous agreement expired, and city and union officials have been meeting behind closed doors for several months in an effort to hammer out a new pact. At issue are a number of sticking points, including minimum manpower levels, wages and benefits.

"The city is taking a hard line by looking for wholesale changes in our contract, and we're not going to be doing that," Barry McGoey, president of Yonkers Fire Local 628, told Newsday Westchester. "The concessions they have asked for are outrageous."

Spano, who took office in January, has been pushing to reduce operating costs by renegotiating the terms of the contract, but union officials say his administration is asking for too many givebacks from the rank and file.

McGoey said the union has offered numerous concessions during the informal talks -- including a 25 percent reduction in starting pay and an incentive plan to reduce sick time -- but city officials wanted more.

Spano's spokeswoman Christina Gilmartin declined to comment on the status of the talks, but said the union had asked for 4 percent annual pay raises for firefighters through 2015, which would have negated any savings from union concessions.

McGoey countered that rank-and-file Yonkers firefighters have gone without raises for nearly four years.

Lawyers for the union and city are expected to meet in the next week to lay the ground rules for future negotiations, which could ultimately end up in court-mediated arbitration if both sides declare an impasse.

One of the biggest sticking points is a provision in the expired contract requiring the city to keep at least 57 firefighters on duty. If the staffing falls below that level, as city officials say it often does, the city is required to call up additional firefighters at time-and-a-half pay -- which has substantially driven up overtime costs.

Spano wants to lower the staffing requirements to reduce the overtime costs, but union officials say the overtime problem could be solved if the city hired more firefighters to boost staffing levels. They say the city has the money to do so.

Spano has said he's willing to hire up to 35 new firefighters, but with reduced benefits and lower pay than the current $70,996-a-year starting pay. Union officials say the city is sitting on a federal grant that would allow it to hire people now.

Another issue is the department's unlimited sick leave policy, which Spano argues is being abused by firefighters who pad their pensions. He wants to limit the policy to cover only firefighters who are injured in the line of duty.

Spano proposed a policy over the summer to reduce overtime costs by taking trucks at two fire companies off the road when large numbers of firefighters didn't show up for duty on any given day, which he estimated would save the city $5 million a year with no impact on public safety. But a State Supreme Court justice put the brakes on that move.

Yonkers is grappling with chronic budget deficits projected to reach $420 million by 2016. The Yonkers Fire Department's expenses, about $45 million last year, represent only a small portion of the city's $955 million budget. But wages and benefits, including overtime, account for the largest portion of the department's annual spending package.

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