City needs to hire 12 new firefighters

City of Lockport police and firefighters assist a man in need of medical attention at the corner of Park Avenue and Hawley Street on Friday. An arbitrator has determined the department's six-man shifts are unsafe. (James Neiss/staff photographer)

In the wake of an arbitrator's decision that the city must increase the fire department's minimum shift staffing from six to nine, the no. 1 question at city hall is: how does Lockport pay for all those firefighters?

To comply with the decision, the city would need to hire 12 new firefighters, at $78,000 apiece in salary and benefits, and retain four firefighters whose positions are funded by a grant that will expire early next year, for a total cost of $1.3 million.

Finance Director Scott Schrader said that absorbing that cost into next year's budget would trigger a 10.5 percent tax rate hike.

Mayor Michelle Roman and Republican mayoral candidate David Wohleben both say they want to stave off a double-digit tax hike in the 2020 budget, but offer very different approaches to lessening that financial blow.

ROMAN'S PLAN

Roman said Wednesday she is negotiating a plan with the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association that would allow the city to hire the 12 firefighters over three years and phase in the staffing increase.

Arbitrator Michael Lewandowski directed the city to "immediately" establish the higher staffing level, and City Attorney Allen Miskell warned the city could face "serious financial ramifications" for failing to comply soon enough.

However, Miskell also said the city could phase in the new firefighters if they have the union's cooperation.

"If the union and the city can agree with what would be a reasonable process for fulfilling the arbitrator's opinion, who's going to complain?" Miskell said.

Roman said she is also in talks with the union on returning ambulance service to the fire department.

The city eliminated LFD's ambulance service in 2014 — while also reducing staffing and laying off 12 firefighters — to cut costs as it struggled with a financial crisis.

Miskell said that with better billing and collections, the fire department could generate $1.5 million in revenue for the city..

But during discussions on ambulance service in 2017, other city officials disputed those claims. The service generated about $711,000 in 2013, and then-Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said she doubted better billing could significantly raise revenues, because about 80 percent of calls involved fixed-rate payers, such as Medicare and Medicaid.

"These are rough (estimates), and I'm not saying we will make $1.5 million next year," said Miskell, adding the city would need to purchase ambulance, related equipment and staff LFD with firefighters who are trained in emergency medical response.

The city could explore grant funding of up to $1 million to cover the ambulance costs, Roman said.

Roman also suggested the city, in conjunction with neighboring municipalities, launch a program to bill insurance companies for emergency services rendered at car accidents. Such a program, Roman said, could generate hundreds of thousands per year.

"My administration will actively work to create new revenue streams to effectuate the employment of a fully staffed Fire Department,” Roman said in a statement last week.

Wohleben pointed out restoring LFD's ambulance service would pull firefighters away from fighting fires. Prior to 2014, LFD had the nine-member minimum staffing, but also had to send firefighters to emergency medical calls.

WOHLEBEN'S PLAN

In his first public statements on the matter, Wohleben said the city should take legal action to vacate the Lewandowski's decision and seek alternatives to hiring 12 firefighters. 

"I for one will not approve a budget that hires 12 unnecessary firefighters if it means laying-off other hard-working employees. I will also not vote for a budget that raises property taxes one penny to hire 12 unnecessary firefighters," Wohleben said, adding that legacy, equipment and personnel costs could necessitate a 13 percent tax hike.

The city could seek to vacate Lewandowski's decision in State Supreme Court on one of two grounds: that his decision was not based on evidence presented in the hearing, or that Lewandowski overstepped his authority as an arbitrator.

The city could ask a judge to issue a stay on the required staffing increase until the matter is resolved in court.

Wohleben issued a written statement Wednesday that laid out his issues with Lewandowski's ruling.

"The firefighter’s union presented no evidence that the current staffing levels are unsafe," Wohleben said. "They did not object to the City’s argument that the staffing had been tied to ambulance service. They did not dispute the City’s statement that we were in fiscal peril." 

But Miskell said an appeal would be costly, unsuccessful and squander goodwill with the union, potentially complicating further negotiations on how to comply with the arbitration ruling.

“There is no hiding from this decision and there is no basis for an appeal. I think an appeal is a tremendous waste of money," Miskell said, noting the city has spent about $300,000 so far litigating the issue with the union.

Wohleben offered two suggestions for increasing staffing without hiring more firefighters:

Roman said she has explored both options, but the union has indicated they "are not open" to 24-hour shifts.

Roman also said she would have "some idea" of what staffing offer the union may agree to by Sept. 23.

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