The news that the city of Gloucester’s new contract with its firefighters’ union will mean an annual cost hike of some $1.6 million — or roughly 25 percent — over current figures may have hit some residents and taxpayers like a ton of bricks when first reported in Wednesday’s Times.
But the numbers should not have come as a surprise, given that the restructuring of the department from four shifts of 18 firefighters each into three units of 24.
In boosting the regularly scheduled work shift of each member of the department by 14 hours a week – from the current 42 to 56, as set to begin next July 1 — the city must boost each firefighter’s pay by a corresponding amount. And anyone who considered that equation should have foreseen a jump of $1 million or more.
But there’s another factor that city residents and taxpayers should consider: this new contract represents the true cost of keeping the city’s four fire stations open on a full-time basis. That’s not only worth the investment in Gloucester’s public safety; it should also trigger some questions as to why this approach isn’t already in place.
The $1.6 million added salary cost is, according to Fire Chief Eric Smith, the most viable means of addressing the problem — and there is every indication that he’s right. In earlier incarnations, the firefighters’ union had held that the city should have simply plugged more and more into the department’s overtime funding — and the city could still do that.
But Smith noted that projected cost, while keeping in line with contracted minimum manning figures, would also run at roughly $1.6 million to fully maintain all four stations, Central, West Gloucester, Bay View and Magnolia. And that’s not exactly a wash; banking solely on overtime is not nearly as reliable as restructured shifts, given it’s at the mercy of firefighters’ wanting to take on the OT. And in the past, it has often failed to fill rosters, leaving Bay View, Magnolia — or both — all too often shut down.