Town officials and union representatives are still grappling over what to do about finding overtime pay for Kearny Fire Department personnel.
The town governing body met in special session last Tuesday and caucused in private for about an hour to review its options but came up with no answers, although one may involve trading O.T. for compensatory time.
At issue is how to deal with the fact that the town has already exceeded the amount it budgeted for Fire Department O.T. for this year, Mayor Alberto Santos announced, prior to going into executive session, before an audience comprised, exclusively, of some 35 firefighters.
Santos said the intent of the closed-door meeting was to review options available to the town, including the most drastic, “resulting in reduction of shifts,” but quickly added, “we don’t want to reduce [fire] companies or staffing on a piece of [fire] equipment.”
“However,” the mayor added, “even with the money added to the overtime budget for ‘breakage’ from the 17 retirees we’ve had this year, we’re not going to make it to December.”
(By using the term “breakage,” the mayor was referring to the savings in salaries the town would see from the pay differential between the senior fire personnel who’ve departed and the rookies coming aboard.)
Given the short-staffing that the Fire Department has been dealing with, summer vacation schedules have exacerbated the drain on the O.T. account, Santos said, and this month there will be no let up, he noted, because firefighter union conferences and vacations “will result in [firefighter] absences.”
Even with the department’s ranks swelling later this year when 12 new firefighters are scheduled to finish their Academy training, “we won’t get there, so the default action becomes closure [of a fire company]. … We’re working on borrowed time. We hope we can make progress between now and our next meeting [on Sept. 8].”
Although town CFO Shuaib Firozvi did not sit in on the closed session that followed, Santos said that council members and Town Administrator Michael Martello had been fully briefed at a prior closed session on possible scenarios the town could pursue.
Councilwoman Eileen Eckel, who chairs the Fire Committee, said that she and her colleagues “all have given this a lot of thought and consideration and none of us want to see a negative outcome, especially with the new people coming on. We hope we can find a way to keep things open and running.”
After the closed session, the mayor and council reconvened and opened the floor to union leaders.
Michael McCurrie, president of FMBA Local 18, representing the rank-and-file, said that his members should not have to give up their contractual right to O.T. simply because the department is short-handed. “Manpower is a product of management decisions,” he said.
In 2011, when firefighters were faced with the possibility of economic layoffs, both rank and file and superior officers’ unions accepted temporary replacement of O.T. with compensatory time and that outcome, he said, “is an injury that we didn’t cause. This town has been the recipient of lucrative concessions from Local 18 and Local 218 (which bargains for the officers).”
McCurrie said the mayor and council “knew that mass retirements were coming” and now, he said, “we’re below minimum manpower. A one-room fire wipes out our Fire Department [response] and if we have a brush fire, the whole town falls apart.”
And, McCurrie said, by accepting transitional aid from the state, the town has willingly taken on the state as a partner that must approve every new hire it wants to make, further tieing its hands.
Fire Capt. Kevin Donnelly, president of Local 218, said he learned about the O.T. crisis “two weeks ago, when we were approached to help with the issue.” He added that the union recommended strategies that, he said, would result in “substantial savings for this quarter,” but, “unfortunately, we couldn’t agree” with the town on implementing those suggestions.
“When you have to quantify everything by the dollar,” said Fire Chief Steven Dyl, “it’s very difficult. We had two multiple alarm fires in the last week, Dyl added, gesturing toward the firefighters in the audience, “and they’re giving in their all. The worst part is dealing with the pie [of municipal funds] and making it work. For the Town Council, that’s their threealarm fire – dealing with the dollar.”
The Observer later learned from the chief that the department incurred $5,504 in O.T. in connection with the fire at the meadows mulch plant and $5,400 in O.T. from another meadows fire behind the Gunnell Oval.
Recent Fire Department O.T. payments, made every two weeks, have been steadily decreasing, from the beginning of July to the end of August, dropping from $116,000 to $88,000, according to municipal records.
Santos said the town had budgeted $925,000 for Fire Department O.T. this year. Projections are that, “we can add $300,000 from breakage savings but we’ll still be short by about $275,000,” he said.
If the unions are willing to go along with a comp time proposal, which would run through year’s end, the town and the unions would sign a letter of agreement as a supplement to their existing contracts. Local 218’s contract runs through Dec. 31 and Local 18’s contract expires Dec. 31, 2016.
“We’re all going to work together,” said Dyl, “and we’re going to keep everyone safe.”