By Marjorie Nesin
---- — Mayor Carolyn Kirk and first-year Fire Chief Eric Smith have hashed out a plan that they hope will allow the city to open its outskirts fire stations more frequently through both a reorganization and allocating of city money to the Fire Department.
Kirk, in a letter to city councilors dated Monday, laid out a funding proposal for their review and approval, suggesting the city use some of the $4.8 million in “free cash” funds, Gloucester’s surplus fiscal 2012 revenue, to fill one new position within the department, to allocate $46,000 in overtime pay for firefighters, increasing the fiscal year overtime line item to $200,000, and by creating a “rainy day” fund for the department with another $200,000 to be used in increments as the year advances.
The entire proposal comes at a time when City Councilors are pushing Kirk to create a comprehensive plan for allocating the millions of dollars in “free cash” before requesting funds. Kirk wrote, however, that this funding request was expedited to satisfy another request by city councilors: to open the stations in West Gloucester, Bay View and Magnolia more frequently and more consistently.
“It is important to note that we are trending in the right direction in terms of stations being open with greater frequency, and our goal is to ensure this happens in a sustainable manner,” Kirk wrote.
Fire Chief Smith said that while the extra funding would help keep the stations staffed, the money will not be enough to fund full-time coverage at all stations for the full fiscal year, which runs through June 30. While Central Station and West Gloucester were staffed, the nightly city emergency reported indicated that Bay View and Magnolia stations were once again closed Tuesday night. The Magnolia station has rarely been open since the fall of 2011.
“The hope’s that we’ll open stations in the outskirts more frequently, but this certainly won’t open them consistently every day. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly enough funding to do that,” Smith said. “We’re going to try to be a little more strategic and tactical with staffing up ... but to try to keep Bay View open as much as possible with the budget.”
Smith said the department’s employees accrue so much overtime pay because of the low number of department employees. The current two shifts of 18 firefighters and two of 17 firefighters mean that when a firefighter is on vacation, injured, sick, training or otherwise out, a firefighter from another shift must cover his hours, creating a log of overtime for the firefighters providing coverage.
Under the firefighters’ contract with the city, the department requires at least 14 firefighters to be working to open the West Gloucester station and the Central Station. To add Bay View Station to the list of open stations, the department would need 16 firefighters working. And staffing all the stations, including Magnolia, the department would need 18 employees on duty.
“We just don’t have the kinds of staffing levels to have people out and not use overtime,” Smith said. “It’s extremely expensive to buy and back overtime, but it’s still cheaper than hiring more full-time firefighters because you don’t bring in all their benefits.”
Smith said he would like to see about 22 to 24 people assigned to each shift, rather than 17 or 18 as is now. But, he conceded, that would require about half a million in funds to fully staff the three stations, not including Magnolia.
The department recently hired four new employees and plans to hire two more attrition hires and one new firefighter in the coming months.
The mayor’s proposal would fund the new hire position through the free cash in the city’s budget. And, of these three new hires, one would be a paramedic, according to the mayor’s proposal, allowing the department to use Rescue 2 more frequently as Advanced Life Support. The Fire Department also includes and staffs the city’s ambulance corps.
As staffing levels rise, the mayor proposes that the fire chief and Deputy Chief Steven Aiello realign their personnel across the four staffing groups to reduce overtime work as much as possible. Aiello said the realignments are already a regular practice, with the department shifting employees whenever a new firefighter leaves for a required 12-week training or another firefighter is injured, sick or on vacation from work.
“We just routinely balance out the groups as people retire or move on or are on certain kinds of leave,” Aiello said. “We shift people from group to group all the time.”
Aiello, who also serves as the firefighters’ new union chief, said any staffing changes would be negotiated through collective bargaining.
The current collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30, 2013, and the administration, led by the fire chief, plans to begin negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement after the start of the new year, according to the Kirk.
Turning to fiscal year funding, Kirk said the city should appropriate money to cover the overtime budget shortfall, anticipated by the chief to build to $46,000 by the end of the fiscal year.
“We propose covering that now,” Kirk wrote.
And the proposal would pump another $200,000 into allowing additional overtime. But, the mayor proposes allocating the money in biweekly cycles of $13,333 at a time.
“This process forces accountability into the allocation of the overtime, allows the Chief to review OT patterns on a biweekly basis, and is a practice used by Chief Smith in his previous department,” Kirk wrote.
Part of the mayor’s proposal would be completely new to firefighters, a so-called “Station Opening Stabilization Account,” that would act as a rainy day fund, and that the proposal suggests filling with $200,000 through a fiscal year 2013 supplemental appropriation request.
The rainy day money would require a City Council vote for each time the Fire Department wishes to access the fund. And any money left over in the fund at the end of the fiscal year would carry into the next fiscal year — a good safety net, according to Fire Chief Smith.
“It’s almost like a savings account and even beyond a savings account, really kind of like that emergency account that everyone says you should have,” Smith said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.