By Ron Leir
After meeting in closed caucus for about an hour last Wednesday, Kearny’s governing body came out with what Mayor Alberto Santos later characterized as a commitment to hire 12 additional firefighters … if the town’s state fiscal monitor goes along.
And town officials are pledged to do that, Santos said, even if Kearny fails to secure outside funding sources – in particular, the federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) grant – to help subsidize the cost.
In the recent past, the town has been hesitant to hire any new uniformed employees without that outside cash, insisting that it has been operating under severe budgetary restraints.
But now, Santos said, the Fire Department roster has dipped to the degree that overtime expenses to cover for ailing or injured firefighters and fire superiors have climbed to alarming levels, to the point where the town has essentially no choice but to replenish the ranks.
“We’re going to hit close to $1 million in Fire Department overtime – for both the rank and file and for officers – for the year,” the mayor said, “and we have a recommendation from both the fire chief and CFO that if we hire 12 additional firefighters, we will actually see a savings with a big reduction in overtime.”
With the new personnel, Santos said, each of the department’s four shifts can be supplemented by three firefighters, thereby expanding coverage and more bodies available to fill gaps when needed.
Implementing the new hires, according to Santos, would mean an investment of approximately $600,000 – calculated on the basis of about $30,000 in salary plus an average of $20,000 in health benefits per firefighter per year.
But Santos said that some of that cost would be offset by retirements of veteran uniformed employees anticipated in both the Police and Fire Departments during the next couple of years.
As part of the plan, the mayor said the town would “implement monthly overtime reporting to track projected savings in overtime.”
If, for whatever reason, however, the plan doesn’t produce those savings, Santos said the town may have to close another fire company, as it did a few years ago.
Asked if the town would consider – as a possible savings strategy – renegotiating firefighters’ work schedule, Santos said that wouldn’t happen because the issue was previously arbitrated in the unions’ favor.
At any rate, assuming the state monitor signs off on the plan for extra hirings, Santos said the next step would be for the town to ask the state Civil Service Commission to certify a new firefighter appointment list.
Reached this week, Fire Chief Steve Dyl said: “Yes, we looked at our overtime for 2013 and 2014 and we figured that if we put a few more [firefighters] on, we’d have better balance and put a dent in the O.T.”
Dyl said he’s still facing a falloff in personnel, having lost three firefighters this year through retirement. “If we get the 12 [new appointees], that will put me at 56 – and, with superiors, it will come to 96 total,” he said. That will still fall short of the 102 total called for under the department’s T.O.
“We’ll try to get the new people into the training academy by March  so we have them on the streets before July 1,” Dyl said.
Meanwhile, Santos said the town is also planning to hire more police officers to strengthen thinned ranks. To that end, he said that Civil Service has asked the Police Department to verify residencies of the people on the current appointment list. He declined to say how many cops might be hired.
The mayor and council have also agreed to go along with Public Works Superintendent Gerry Kerr’s recommendation to hire three “seasonal” workers for six months of the year. The monitor has consented to this proposal, Santos said.
A request from the Health Department for a replacement senior citizen bus driver has yet to be discussed, the mayor said.