The village eliminated its eight paid firefighters and will go forward with an all-volunteer fire service, a move officials say will save $800,000 in the next year.
The village board of trustees voted Monday night to cut the positions as part of a budget-balancing measure, but an attorney for the axed workers said the timing implied there was more going on. The professional firefighters have been without a new contract since 2011, and a labor complaint by the union president in March accused volunteers of mishandling a fire on Cottage Street.
“It seems to be retaliatory on a number of fronts,” Richard Corenthal, attorney for the career firefighters, said. The eight firefighters have been placed on paid administrative leave through the end of this month.
“The village is gambling with residents’ lives because there is no longer 24/7 fire protection,” Corenthal said. “The residents and the businesses are now at risk.”
Mayor Dennis Pilla said he was unaware of the March labor complaint, and Fire Chief Edward Quinn would not comment on it.
“It was retaliation in no way,” Pilla said Tuesday night. “This was a fiscal decision.”
The department has 150 interior-trained volunteers, and 150 exterior-trained volunteers, according to village officials. Typically, only one of the 15 firefighters responding to an alarm are paid, officials said.
Quinn said the department responds to about 1,200 calls a year.
The village has more than 29,000 residents, according to the latest Census estimates. Up until the change, Port Chester’s department had a staff of volunteers, supported by the paid firefighters. Paid firefighters manned the village’s four firehouses and drove trucks. The two trucks driven by paid volunteers will be taken out of service temporarily, officials said, but volunteers have other vehicles they will continue to drive.
Vinny Lyons, head of the professional firefighters union, accused volunteers of mishandling a 40 Cottage St. fire on March 3 in a public employee safety and health complaint filed with the state Department of Labor.
Volunteers improperly entered the structure and one firefighter was electrocuted when power wasn’t cut to the building, according to the complaint. After the internal incident report was written by paid firefighter Heriberto Virella, Quinn asked Virella to make changes to his report, including removing references to specific responders and to not distinguish unpaid firefighters by calling them “volunteers.” Those changes were requested in a March 6 letter obtained by The Journal News under the Freedom of Information Law.
‘Step up and deliver’
When the Port Chester board of trustees voted 5-1 to eliminate the paid fire department Monday night, it was to keep the 2016-17 budget under the state tax cap without dipping into the village’s contingency fund, Pilla said.
Village trustee Luis Marino, a volunteer firefighter with the Port Chester department, abstained, and trustee Greg Adams was the lone dissenting vote. Neither could be reached for comment Tuesday.
The cuts were discussed as a budget-balancing option last week, and voted on Monday to beat the midnight budget-adoption deadline, Pilla said.
“With the budget deadline fast approaching, and the possibility of having to override the tax cap looking more and more likely, the board revisited the option of abolishing the paid firefighters’ positions and decided that doing so was in the best interest of the village and its taxpayers,” Pilla said.
In video footage of Monday’s meeting, Trustee Daniel Brakewood said talk of potentially becoming an all-volunteer department dated back to the late 1990s.
“I have a lot of faith, obviously, that they will be able to step up and deliver,” Brakewood said of the volunteers. Emails to trustees Adams, Gene Ceccarelli and Frank Ferrara weren’t returned.
In addition to providing local service, paid firefighters in Port Chester have offered support to neighboring Rye Brook, a village of about 9,800 residents. Since 2013, Rye Brook has paid Port Chester, with the latter village budgeting $970,000 for 2015-16 as revenue from the deal.
One paid Port Chester firefighter manned the Rye Brook firehouse overnight every night for a 12-hour shift. Rye Brook Mayor Paul S. Rosenberg said he was informed of Port Chester’s intention on Friday — after the Rye Brook trustees adopted a budget for 2016-17. After a meeting with officials from villages on Sunday, he said he expected that Port Chester had decided to keep the paid staff on.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that the Port Chester board has chosen to ignore the contract we have with them right now,” Rosenberg said. “This isn’t how you treat a neighboring municipality that you have good relations with.”
Rye Brook’s board will meet Thursday afternoon to discuss the matter. Board members are expected to retreat into a closed-doors executive session and discuss legal options. When the paid firefighter was pulled from the Rye Brook firehouse Monday night, Rosenberg said the village deployed two Rye Brook firefighters and paid them with overtime.
‘Shady about doing it’
On Tuesday, 100 protested the cuts in front of Village Hall. The crowd included firefighters from more than 10 departments, including the city of Yonkers and neighboring city of Rye.
John Giordano, a Port Chester firefighter, was there with his wife and 3-year-old son, who wore a firefighter helmet and a sign that read, “Why did you layoff my daddy?”
Giordano said he was the Port Chester firefighter on duty in Rye Brook on Monday when he was told to leave and not return.
“I had to find my own way back to headquarters,” he said.
Brett Lyons, vice president of the Port Chester Professional Firefighters Local 1971, said the vote came as a surprise to members.
“The village board was shady about doing it,” he said.
Sam Virella, the wife of career firefighter Virella, was emotional during a phone interview Tuesday. Her husband was the same man who filed the Cottage Street incident report. She said her husband is the sole provider for their family which includes two young children, and said he was out looking for a job Tuesday.
“They don’t realize how this impacts the families,” Sam Virella said. “I can’t even fathom the thought of telling this to my son. He looks up to my husband so much.”