The West Gloucester fire station will regularly be up and running — for now anyway.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk has agreed to inject up to $30,000 worth of overtime funds into the Fire Department's account for station staffing.
That money, she and fire officials said Friday, should keep the department running at a level of 14 firefighters per shift, the minimum manning required under the city's contract with the firefighters' union to keep the West Gloucester station open and both ambulance squads running through Feb. 14.
Kirk submitted a $30,000 overtime request to be funded from Gloucester's $3.2 million fiscal 2011 certified surplus revenue account, according to a memo from her office. The City Council, which must approve the move, will take up the request at its regular meeting Tuesday night.
While those funds put the department at contractual minimum manning levels, Kirk said she's not willing to fund the overtime account with the firefighter's union contract still up in the air.
The numbers for funding overtime, she said, could change as the city resumes talks with the union later this month. If left unresolved, the issue and the contract are on track for an arbitration hearing that remains to be scheduled.
"In the meantime, however, the administration is only comfortable making an interim request for a supplemental appropriation for overtime," Kirk wrote in the memo to the council.
Kirk said it's possible that overtime requests, like this one, could continue through the end of the fiscal year. But that depends on how the situation changes in negotiations.
Fire Chief Phil Dench, meanwhile, said Friday that the request at least gives the department and the administration some time to work things out.
Phil Bouchie, president of the firefighters' union, said the union is glad the city will work to fund the contract. But, said he's concerned with the idea of needed overtime funding coming in 30 days at a time through the end of June.
"It's a bit disconcerting that it's in 30-day increments," he said.
The Fire Department emptied its $200,000 general overtime account in December, six months after the start of the fiscal year.
The firefighters' union contract with the city sets the minimum manning for staffing any outlying stations at 14. When fewer than 14 people on a 17- or 18-man shift report for duty, the department calls firefighters back on overtime to cover stations.
West Gloucester is the last on the list in the order for closures. If more firefighters report, then Bay View and Magnolia stations are theoretically opened and staffed as well — though Magnolia station has not been staffed for a single shift since late August, and Bay View station remained closed for several shifts last week.
Kirk said the root of the station closures and manning issue stems from leave clauses in the union's contract.
Up to five firefighters can be out each shift on varied kinds of leave — not including medical leave or training at the state Fire Academy. With two people out sick, and three on personal, vacation or other leave, a shift is down to 12 or 13 and requires overtime.
Also, according to the contract, the fire chief does not have the authority to deny leave to firefighters.
With the overtime drained, West Gloucester station and both rescue squads have been off-line a few times in recent weeks.
"We've been through this several years before, and we know what could possibly happen," said Dench.
He said he and the deputy fire chiefs met with the mayor earlier last week, and asked her to help keep the department at minimum manning. Kirk agreed, and the rest of the arrangement is now up to a council vote.
This is the third time in as many years that the department has exhausted its overtime reserves well before the end of the fiscal year, which runs from July 1 through June 30.
Overtime, said Dench, helps maintain the core of the department at a manning level that keeps all Central Station engines and ambulances manned, and a critical West Gloucester pumping engine in operation.
"We'd like all the stations open and 18 on duty," he said, "but it's critical to have West Gloucester."
Steven Fletcher can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.