Fire Dept. upper ranks face shakeup

By Ron Leir


Fire Capt. Bruce Kaufman Jr. ranks first on the Civil Service appointment list for deputy fire chief with the Kearny Fire Department and Fire Chief Steve Dyl has asked town officials to promote him. (He’s been serving in an “acting” capacity as deputy chief, getting extra pay in the process.)

Instead, the town governing body is looking to cut the number of deputy fire chiefs permitted by town ordinance, from the current five slots to just one, and to chop the number of fire captains, from 25 to six, as part of a proposed restructuring of the department.

In tandem with that downshifting, the town proposes to create the ranks of battalion fire chief and fire lieutenant and, eventually, appoint up to four battalion chiefs and no more than 15 lieutenants.

Salaries for those new ranks would be negotiated with the Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association, the fire officers union.

Mayor Alberto Santos defended the plan as a necessary strategy to prevent payroll costs from spiraling out of control and added that the town was eyeing possible restructuring “in all departments.”

The ordinance calling for the downsizing of the Fire Department’s Table of Organization was introduced by the mayor and Town Council at the April 10 meeting. It’s slated for a public hearing and adoption on May 22.

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Barbara McCurrie, who chairs the council ordinance committee, said that “no one would be demoted” and that the new lieutenant and battalion chief slots “would be filled through attrition” – meaning as retirements occur, the town would make appointments, as needed, over time.

Both union leaders and Fire Chief Steve Dyl were unsettled by the town’s plan.

Jeff Bruder, president of FMBA Local 218, which represents fire officers, griped that town officials had sprung the news without the “courtesy” of first alerting the unions. Santos said he was at a loss to explain why no advance word had filtered to the FMBA.

The mayor noted that Bayonne, with a fire department of about 160 members, “had only two deputy chiefs” and that the 120-member Hoboken Fire Dept. had “no deputies.”

But Bruder countered that Kearny’s plan was unworkable because “we’re too small a department for this type of setup.”

And Chief Dyl, who has asked the mayor and council to name a fifth deputy chief, urged the governing body to “hold off” on the ordinance’s introduction to allow additional time to hash out a possible alternate strategy.

“We all understand there’s a budget crisis in Trenton and in Kearny,” Dyl said. And for any members of the Fire Dept. who may not be aware of that, “this (ordinance) is a wake-up call,” he said.

On the other hand, Dyl said, starting July 1, the Fire Dept. will be seeing a “13% reduction” in its work force due to retirements which, he said, will impact not only its ability to fight local fires but also its mutual aid obligations.

The Fire Dept., with its current complement of 90 members, is at a point where “we’re not cutting fat anymore, we’re down to the bone,” Dyl said.

With cooperation from all concerned, Dyl said, the department can survive. But the town’s present timetable “gives me two weeks to come up with a solution. That ain’t gonna happen.”

But Santos said the town can’t afford to linger.

“At the heart of this (are) salary levels that can’t be sustained,” the mayor said, and “to say, ‘keep promoting,’ brings the day of reckoning that much sooner.”

Come July 1, 2012, when the FMBA contract runs out, Santos said, the annual pay of the current four deputy chiefs and the chief, combined, will total $867,000; add on benefits and pension costs and that figure rises to more than $1 million; then throw in a fifth deputy chief and the total goes to $1,150,000.

Additionally, the mayor said, 19 of the department’s 25 captains are “at top step of the (salary) guide,” $137,000 a year. That comes to about $2.6 million annually.

After a new labor contract is negotiated, those pay levels are likely to go even higher (the current Fire Dept. payroll is about $10.5 million), and if the department’s T.O. remains unchanged, the town probably won’t be able to comply with the state-mandated 2% budget tax cap, unless it closes a firehouse or opts for layoffs, Santos said.

Santos said the proposed T.O. changes were recommended by a public safety consultant in the early 1990s and were echoed by the state Dept. of Community Affairs in 2011 during discussions of a proposed “merger or consolidation” of fire protection services with Harrison.

Asked by The Observer to project how much Kearny would save by adopting the proposed changes, Santos said: “Savings depends on the number of retirements and we don’t know what that looks like yet. But I can say that if we don’t do this, we’ll be in a worse off position. The risk of layoffs or a firehouse closure becomes higher by not doing this.”

The bottom line, Santos said, is “preserving our residents’ safety while achieving savings.”




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