By LEVI PASCHER
Fulton County Express
GLOVERSVILLE — The mayor and city council have set a hard deadline for the city fire department union to settle a new contract before the decision goes to a referendum vote.
Mayor Dayton King said the city is looking for the firefighters to cut $300,000 from its annual payroll to alleviate some of the tax burden currently on city residents by the end of this month. He said if the Gloversville Firefighters Association is unable to do so the city will be taking steps to create a referendum vote for the November ballot that would downsize the city department.
According to budget figures provided by the city finance department, the 28 members of the city fire department have a base salary between $39,000 and $59,000 but overtime, benefits and other expenses raise the annual cost to over $100,000 per firefighter. The overall cost for labor in the city fire department is over $3.1 million dollars.
The mayor said a large part of the expenses come from the safety staffing requirements within the contract and the related overtime expenses. The existing contract requires at least seven firefighters to be on duty at all times and if a firefighter in unable to work another must take his place at a higher rate of pay.
“Over 80 percent of the overtime costs in 2016 were due to the contract,” King said. “My goal is for no one to lose their job and we have tried unsuccessfully to have the union members understand this. We are thinking about the taxpayers and residents of our city.”
The previous contract officially expired in 2013 and has been rolled over every year. King said the city has been in negotiations with the firefighters since the last contract expired but have been unable to reach an agreement that would save the city substantial money. He said the last proposal offered by the union created a savings of about $79,000.
Gloversville Firefighter’s Association President Ed Martelle said the union has been attempting to negotiate a fair contract for the city and members over the past four years but currently can’t agree on a new contract.
“We are obviously at a stalemate with it,” he said. “We have had some discussions but we haven’t been able to come to an agreement at this time.”
He also said he believes the current negotiations should have never been made public.
“I think how it is being handled is not really in good faith of collective bargaining,” he said. “I think these things should be kept in the negotiating room because it makes it an unfair platform to work on.”
Martelle said last week no negotiations have been scheduled yet between the city administration and fire union before the March deadline.
“They are looking to save money and we are certainly looking to do that but leaving it up to the voters could go really either way,” he said. “At the end of the day it really comes down to public safety and having enough people on to respond in emergency situations. There are certainly consequences to downsizing the department but I think the best solution for both sides would be to have this decided at the bargaining table rather than through a referendum.”
King said he believes the firefighters could create the $300,000 savings by decreasing the minimum staffing level requirement and increasing firefighters’ health care contributions. However, he said if the department is not willing to make the reduction the city will move forward with the referendum allowing city residents to make the decision.
The mayor said the city still needs to determine how the referendum would officially be presented but if the majority of city residents supported the decision to restructure the fire department it would allow the city to get around the existing contract and create savings through a substantial budget decrease.
He said both a public hearing and local law would need to be passed by the council in order for a referendum to be placed on the November ballot.
King said the city has put together three options eliminating four, eight or 12 firefighters within the city department. He said if the city were to downsize the department through a public vote the city would then supplement the full-time city firefighters with the surrounding volunteer departments. The city already has a mutual-aid agreement with the Johnstown Fire Department, which sends two firefighters to any fire in the city of Gloversville.
According to figures provided by the city finance department, reducing the department staff by four firefighters would create an annual savings of about $392,000, eliminating eight positions would save about $796,000 and cutting 12 positions would save the city about $1.2 million annually.
“The savings are real,” he said. “The tax rates will decrease and we will still be able to provide an excellent fire response throughout our city.”
However, Martelle cautioned that downsizing the department would also bring considerable risk for city residents because stopping fires from spreading comes down to response time.
“We respond quickly and that allows us to stop these fires early,” he said. “Having enough people to get inside the building before it spreads is huge. If we had less people there would be obvious safety concerns because we may not have enough guys on the outside to help those guys that go into the building.”
The mayor said the savings would allow the city of Gloversville to have more formal conversations with the city of Johnstown about potential consolidation opportunities.
“If we are successful in doing this, our tax rate will be close to the city of Johnstown’s and they may finally agree to have more serious discussions regarding a much needed consolidation of our cities,” King said.