GLOVERSVILLE — City officials are pushing the fire department to cut $300,000 from its payroll or face a referendum vote on the matter in November.
The department’s staffing budget stands at $3.19 million annually, according to figures from the city Finance Department. A breakdown provided to The Daily Gazette showed that, while most of the department’s 29 members make a base salary of between $49,000 and $59,000, overtime, health insurance, retirement benefits and other costs add up to an average annual cost of $110,000 per firefighter.
The fire department’s contract with the city ran out in 2013 but is rolled over every year until a new contract is put in place.
The average salary at the fire department — with overtime, holiday and personal time buyouts — is $72,275. Chief Thomas Groff pulls down $90,000 a year, while Battalion Chief David Rackmyre makes $103,000. The lowest-paid firefighter makes an annual salary of $57,000.
Gloversville Mayor Dayton King said that, while negotiations between the department and the city are ongoing, the two sides can’t seem to get within range of one another on a package of cuts.
“They’re giving us options that aren’t even close,” said King of the department’s latest cost-cutting offer, which he claimed amounted to $79,000 in savings.
Gloversville Firefighter’s Association president Ed Martelle said the union won’t comment on the negotiations. The union’s lawyer, John Black of the Albany-based firm Hinman Straub P.C., also would not comment.
“It is the policy of the union not to discuss contract negotiations with the press,” said Black in an email. “The city had agreed to the same policy.”
King said he spoke out because negotiations seem to be stalled.
“I just think, the way it is now, they either think we’re bluffing [about putting a referendum vote on the ballot], or they think the community is OK with spending this kind of money,” King said.
City officials have yet to work out what the referendum language would be, but if a majority of residents vote for the city to restructure the fire department, it would allow city officials to bypass binding arbitration and would give them the upper hand in negotiating a budget decrease, King said.
A public hearing and subsequent passage of a local law by the Common Council would be required to put such a referendum on the ballot.
Gloversville Ward 2 Councilman Arthur Simonds said the council is in favor of a $300,000 trim to the fire department’s staffing budget, and barring that, will work toward a referendum.
“I’m not against a referendum, but I’d rather have the fire department take care of their own stuff,” said Simonds. “They can get there if they want to; it’s just difficult for them to make that decision.”
King said he doesn’t want to see any firefighters lose their jobs, but Gloversville, which in times past was home to more than a hundred factories, does not need 29 full-time firefighters. Simonds agreed with that assessment.
“Unfortunately, the city is in a place right now where there’s more of a need for police than firefighters,” he said.
The Common Council approved last year the hiring of three new patrol officers, one detective and one clerk, at an approximate cost of $300,000. King said the money for those new hires is essentially coming out of cuts to the fire department.
Both King and Simonds said the staffing budget is inflated by minimum staffing levels that are built into the department’s contract with the city. The contract stipulates that at least seven firefighters must be on duty at all times. If a firefighter calls out on his shift (all current members are male), another must take his place at an increased rate of pay.
King said it’s possible for the department to get close to $300,000 in savings if it keeps the staffing minimum at seven but only called in replacement firefighters if the minimum staffing level dropped below five members on duty at any time. Additional savings to get to the $300,000 mark could be achieved by increasing firefighters’ health care contributions, said King, who also noted that four members are eligible for retirement, having served 20 years on the job.
The alternative, he added, is to put a referendum on the ballot that might contain a choice for voters to convert the department into a combination of career and volunteer firefighters, which may result in layoffs.
Simonds said he’s confident that if the matter came to a vote, Gloversville residents would side with the mayor and council.
“I think, when the people realize the amount of money that we could save by doing a few things, they’ll vote to trim the fire department,” he said.
It’s unclear what legal recourse would be available to the department and the union if such a referendum were passed.
King said that, ideally, the department will come to the city with an offer to institute a 7-to-5 minimum staffing level requirement, increase firefighters’ health care contributions and put a freeze on raises.
“When more people retire, we can talk about raises,” he said.
King said the city would also work out mutual-aid and volunteer agreements with three surrounding departments. The city already has a mutual-aid agreement with the Johnstown Fire Department, which sends a minimum of two firefighters to any fire that breaks out in Gloversville.
It’s unclear how many calls the Gloversville Fire Department went on in 2016, but King said the majority of the calls were for medical emergencies that don’t require a full contingent of firefighters.
He compared Gloversville to the City of Beacon, New York, which has a similar population. Gloversville’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s website, was around 15,000 as of July 2015. Beacon’s population was 14,000, and that city has about 1,000 fewer households, according to census data.
According to the Beacon Fire Department’s website, the department responds to more than 1,700 fire and rescue calls per year with 13 full-time firefighters, 40 volunteers and three support personnel.
King said city officials are trying to get the tax rate down to between $15-$16 dollars per $1,000 of assessed property value. The rate now stands at $20.64. The overarching goal, said King, is to get Gloversville’s tax rate closer to Johnstown’s, so that officials in that city “may finally agree to have more serious discussions regarding a much-needed consolidation of our cities.”
King is in favor of consolidating the two cities because, as it currently stands, they compete for businesses and tax revenue. A consolidation would also result in decreased staffing costs for both cities, which, he admitted, would require the elimination of certain jobs — possibly his own.
“People want power; they want jobs. But the way you get there is through attrition,” said King, noting that job eliminations would ideally come through retirements that are not filled.
“One less person would have an opportunity to be chief, but we can’t all be chiefs,” he said. “Competition is a good thing.”
King and incoming Johnstown Mayor Vernon Jackson previously agreed to meet Feb. 3 to discuss issues of concern to both cities. King said consolidation would be one of their topics of conversation. Jackson could not be reached for comment.