, Gloucester, MA

September 19, 2013

Editorial: Added GFD costs a good investment in fire protection

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — 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.

The city also could avoid all overtime and any boosts in hours by hiring an additional 24 firefighters, Smith noted, but that could mean an annual cost hike of $1.9 million, a full $300,000 more than the current plan.

The viability — necessity, really — of paying the added $1.6 million going forward shows up in Mayor Carolyn Kirk’s proposal for funding it. In outlining those plans, Kirk noted that the first year of the upgraded firefighters’ hourly schedule and city cost will likely be funded through the city’s free cash account — expected to be certified at or around $3 million from the 2013 fiscal year, if auditor Kenny Costa’s preliminary report holds up. And the increase in succeeding years should be built into the city’s budget — with some funding likely still to come from free cash, and, what the mayor didn’t say, drawn from other departments.

Yet, given the city’s free cash figures of $4.8 million in fiscal 2012 and the expected $3 million for fiscal 2013, which ended June 30, one can also ask why more money hasn’t been allocated for hiring more personnel for fire services in the past, rather than essentially left to be funneled into “free cash.” Then again, the previous structure of the firefighters’ contract had left additional hiring and excessive overtime as the city’s only real options.

Are there questions about this cost, and aspects of the contract? Of course.

For one thing, covering the long-overdue, full-time operation of the city’s four fire stations through additional firefighters’ hours will significantly boost their salary level when they qualify for pension coverage down the road, and that’s not accounted for. Also, will the city need this level of staffing and four stations if indeed Gloucester relocates its central facility to a new public safety complex at the former Fuller School site – one of the plans clearly in the mix for that city-owned property?

All of that remains to be seen. But the fact is, an added $1.6 million will represent an investment into the level of fire safety protection that the city’s residents have long deserved — and that, with proper budgeting, the city can well afford.

Expensive? You bet. But in this case, it stands to be money well spent.