YONKERS — An attorney for the city firefighters union today praised a last-minute court order barring Mayor Mike Spano from reducing department staffing levels to curb overtime costs.
“The court’s order protects public safety by ensuring that a minimum of 57 firefighters will be on duty to protect one of New York’s most densely populated cities,” attorney Richard Corenthal of Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein, said.
The comment appeared in a press release issued today by the department’s public relations firm, responding to a statement by Spano earlier today calling the court decision “an order to pay higher taxes.’
“The temporary restraining order is essentially an order to the taxpayers of Yonkers,” Spano said in a statement issued to The Journal News through his spokeswoman, Christina Gilmartin. “It is an order for us to pay higher taxes. It is an order to pay for the continual abuse of sick leave. It is an order to pay unsustainable overtime costs.
“We need to tackle and resolve this sooner rather than later, or our city will never be financially stable,” the mayor continued. “As a result, we are exploring all legal options as well as other operational changes we can make to fill the $5 million gap which the court has now created.”
Spano’s response comes after the Yonkers firefighters union filed a lawsuit against the city late Monday in Westchester state Supreme Court. Yonkers Firefighters Local 628 opposes the mayor’s plan to lower the department’s minimum staffing levels under a policy that would allow the city to take fire trucks off the street to cut overtime costs.
Spano had planned to begin implementing the new policy today that would have removed up to two fire trucks from service for the day any time fewer than 54 firefighters show up for work — a measure vehemently opposed by their union.
But late Monday, Westchester state Supreme Court Judge John La Cava issued a temporary restraining order blocking the move at the union’s request, Spano spokeswoman Christina Gilmartin said.
The judge also ordered the city to maintain a minimum daily headcount of 57 firefighters and scolded city attorneys for suggesting the minimum staffing level was instead 54, according to Yonkers Fire-Local 628 president Barry McGoey. The next court hearing is scheduled for Aug. 30 in White Plains.
Spano’s new policy would have lowered the minimum staffing level per tour to 48 firefighters before replacements could be brought in at overtime pay for those who call out sick – a change that his office said would save the city $5 million annually, without compromising public safety.
“We have asked to sit down with the union to target ways in which we can save the city on the cost of overtime and sick leave,” Gilmartin said late Monday.
Gilmartin said the new policy will not force the closure of any firehouses, but it will allow the city to sideline up to two companies when necessary. Spano’s office has identified Ladder Co. 71 on New School Street and Engine Co. 312 on Fortfield Avenue as the two companies affected by the plan.
McGoey, in the union’s statement Tuesday, called mayor’s plan a ‘blatant violation’ of existing labor agreements and said it endangers civilians and firefighters.
“Closing two firehouses not only impacts the neighborhoods surrounding where they are located but the city as a whole,’ McGoey said. ‘I couldn’t imagine having to wait an extra minute or two for help while you or a family member is having a heart attack or stroke. In an emergency it can be the difference between life and death.”
Relations between the administration and the firefighters union began deteriorating this spring amid a budget-season battle over Spano’s plan to trim the department’s ranks and change what he called an “abusive” sick-leave policy.
McGoey said Monday night that there are currently 37 unfilled positions in the department, creating a manpower shortage that will drive up overtime costs. At the same time, he said, the city is “thumbing its nose” at federal grants that could be used to fill some empty slots.
The union chief also said that all 57 firefighters and fire officers currently on sick leave or sidelined by line-of-duty injuries have legitimate, medically-verified reasons for being out of work.
“They are not abusing sick leave,” McGoey said.