Fire contract has high price

A story in this paper last week revealed the high cost to Gloversville taxpayers of the minimum-manning clause in the Gloversville Fire Department’s public-employee union contract.

From 2007 to 2012, Gloversville spent more than $1.2 million on overtime costs for the Fire Department. This extra cost wasn’t due to a rash of fires; it was due almost entirely to the seven-man minimum- manning clause in the fire union’s contract. The clause requires that whenever a firefighter is out sick or otherwise unavailable for regular duties, that firefighter must be replaced to maintain the minimum of seven on duty. The first person to come in to cover the seven-man minimum is paid at a safety-staffing rate, which is straight time, but if another employee has to come in to reach seven, that person is paid at the overtime rate. That system cost Gloversville taxpayers $325,811 in extra straight-time safety pay between 2009 and 2012 and $529,424 in overtime pay over the same period.

For comparison, the city of Johnstown, which has a little more than half the residents of Gloversville, paid $22,576 in overtime for its fire department in 2012, while Gloversville paid more than 10 times that, at $298,926. Johnstown’s residents and businesses do quite well being protected by a four-man minimum staff of firefighters – Gloversville surely could get by with fewer than seven. Trying to justify the cost of this overtime pay because of a perceived safety benefit is unrealistic. Communities could always spend more money on trying to make things safer, but there must be limits.

The overtime costs were agreed to by the city’s mayor, Common Council and finance commissioner as the price for staff reductions in 2003 and 2011. The staff reductions were possible because the Fire Department’s pubic-employee union agreed to allow them in return for the opportunity for that overtime pay.

The overtime costs are cheaper than the enormous cost of salaries, benefits and pensions for an additional six firefighters, but that’s hardly the point.

The union contract has a no-layoff clause and the minimum-manning clause, which combined give city officials little leverage in extracting concessions from the union.

New York state’s Taylor Law and it’s Triborough Amendment mandate all provisions of a public-employee union contract remain in place, even after the contract expires, until a new deal is agreed to by both sides.

The revelation of Gloversville’s overtime costs should give the public a strong incentive to pressure the mayor and council to find a way to either eliminate the minimum-manning and no-layoff clauses from the Fire Department’s next union contract or reduce the number required for minimum staffing.