One of the toughest areas for a municipal government to cut is funding for firefighters and emergency services.
But as local government boards face increased financial challenges, more fire companies are being asked to join the government entities in making tough sacrifices.
The city of Gloversville has reached that crossroads, as the struggling city seeks to cut expenses in order to pay for necessary new police protection and other services.
So far, negotiations between the firefighters union and the city over a request the department cut $300,000 from its payroll have hit a wall.
If the two sides can’t fi gure out a compromise, the city seems ready to have voters decide the matter in a referendum that could include changing the makeup of the fire company to a mix of paid and volunteers.
That could result in unhappy outcomes on all sides — the government, the firefighters and taxpayers.
If a major change in the structure of the fi re company is approved by voters, it could generate the savings the city is seeking for its taxpayers. But it also could negatively impact the degree and quality of local firefighting efforts, something that might not make citizens happy.
Should referendum pass, it could result in exactly the kinds of layoffs that firefighters’ representatives are now trying to avoid.
If it fails, the fire company might stay fully intact, but other city services will have to suffer to make up the difference in funding.
So putting this matter to an up-or-down vote should be seen by all sides as a last resort.
Until recently, negotiations had been taking place in private. But because of the impasse, city officials decided to go public with their concerns and their positions.
Among the concessions city officials are seeking to save the $300,000 are reductions in mandatory staffing levels, asking firefighters to take on more of the cost of their health care, and a pay freeze.
We don’t know where firefighters officially stand on any of those proposals because they’re adhering to an agreement not to discuss the negotiations in public.
But now that one side has revealed its bargaining position, and now that the threat of a potentially damaging referendum is on the table, it’s time for negotiations to come out of hiding and for the public to get a full airing of the issues.
Why can’t the fire department operate at staffing levels comparable to what other departments in similarly sized cities operate at? What’s a reasonable a amount to expect fi refi ghters to pay for their health insurance compared to what other cities’ fi refi ghters pay? Do they have to send a crew to every emergency call, whether their assistance is needed or not? Can the city even make these cuts and still maintain insurance coverage at a reasonable cost?
City residents will ultimately have to pay for whatever comes out of the talks, and city residents ultimately will have to live with whatever impact on fi re protection any changes will create.
It’s time to bring this all out in the open and resolve the dispute before both sides are forced into an outcome that no one finds acceptable.