Mayor Dayton King is taking a hard line against the Gloversville Firefighters Association, months before the contract with the union is set to expire.
In an interview Thursday with The Daily Gazette, King said he wants to reduce the Fire Department’s minimum staffing level requirements from seven people per shift to six and is willing to lay off firefighters to accomplish his goal.
Brandt Minkler, president of the firefighters union, was dismayed by the mayor’s comments, saying King “does not know how to deal with labor issues. He has a lot to learn and he should listen to his advisers.”
King also said he is willing to take his position to binding arbitration, a process that could take more than a year. “It is a fight well worth it,” he said. “I have made it clear. My goal is not to lay off people, but I want that minimum staffing changed and I want to do it through negotiations,” he said.
Minkler said the union is willing to negotiate many of the issues raised by the mayor. “I look forward to the start of negotiations,” he said.
King said he would use savings from reduced firefighter staffing to add four officers to the Police Department. “We have crime here and don’t have fires here as much,” he said. “We only have three or four police officers on shift and seven firefighters on shift every day. The public in general has said we have too many firefighters and not enough police.”
The firefighters’ contract with the city expires at the end of the year. The contract states that each of three shifts is to have a minimum of seven firefighters and that the fourth shift have eight. The department has 29 people.
Minkler said were the city to lay off firefighters, the union would file a lawsuit and that the city is in “an absolute lose position.” Should the city lose, it would be responsible for back pay and penalties. That does not daunt King.
King and the union have battled publicly since the mayor took office. In this latest round, the mayor had some choice words about the firefighters’ minimum staffing requirements. “This is a fiefdom. They are saying, ‘We got our benefits, we got our pay and you are not going to screw around with us.’ It is not about safety, it is about benefits and pay.”
Minkler said King has demonstrated a lack of “respect and cooperation” toward the department.
King said he sees no reason why the department can’t reduce staffing. He said the city of Johnstown and the city of Amsterdam operate with minimum staffs of five firefighters per shift and that a reduction in the Gloversville Fire Department’s staffing would not affect its ability to fight fires.
Minkler said there are safety issues that have to be addressed within the Fire Department before it can reduce staffing. He said the city is reluctant to spend money on firefighting equipment and training. The department, for example, should purchase a replacement ladder truck, able to reach structures 35 feet and higher. The department has a 110-foot aerial ladder truck, but it has been out of service since November. The department recently had to call in the Johnstown Fire Department to use its aerial truck to fight a fire. A new aerial truck would cost $850,000.
The lack of an aerial truck was a factor in why the Insurance Services Office in May downgraded Gloversville’s fire protection rating. Insurance companies use the classification to calculate premiums. The higher the class, the more likely fire insurance will cost more, according to the ISO website.
Minkler said King seems to have a vendetta against the department. “He does not like the Fire Department and has made it his mission to berate and attack us in public,” he said.
King said his beef with the department has more to do with finding ways to cut the city’s expenses related to pensions, salaries and benefits. The city is at 97 percent of its constitutional taxing limit and cannot afford to raise taxes on residents. King said the city paid nearly $1 million in pension costs this year and approximately $3 million each in total costs for the Police Department and Fire Department. The city’s total budget is $15 million.
The city recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Gloversville Firefighters Association that is separate from negotiations pertaining to a new contract. The agreement continues a prior one-year agreement that expired in May. The new agreement gives the city the right to not fill vacancies in the Fire Department for one year. Without the agreement, the city would have to fill vacancies due to the minimum staffing provisions.
King said the Fire Department is making due by filling in with overtime — 100 hours a week. He said that while the lower staff level saves the city money, the city is seeing an increase in overtime costs.