WILKES-BARRE – The vice president of the city firefighters' union said he doubted whether laying off 11 members achieved its cost-savings goal.
The firefighters were let go in the beginning of December to help bridge an estimated $2 million revenue shortfall last year and have not been called back under the new, 2013 budget that raised property taxes by 25 mills.
The city has paid overtime, unemployment compensation and, until Dec. 31, health care coverage for the laid-off workers, said Greg Freitas, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 104. There's no savings there, he said.
Freitas estimated $13,000 in overtime has been paid since December to maintain a minimum staffing level of 11 firefighters for each of the two daily shifts due to the department's layoffs and retirements. More than 111 shifts had to be covered at a time- and-a-half pay rate. The day shift lasts nine hours and the night shift is 15 hours.
In some instances the assistant chief and captain who work the day shift fill in to reduce the overtime. The union agreed to that years ago, Freitas said.
The city could not provide the overtime cost. We're doing our own analysis to confirm the shifts and total figures, Drew McLaughlin, the city's administrative coordinator, said in an e-mail on Friday.
As the mayor has said previously, we can't commit to an exact date on returning the 11 firefighters, the email stated. We have to monitor revenues, but the concessions requested would have brought them back sooner – and still would.
The layoffs cost the city in other ways, Freitas added. Morale is low and the laid-off firefighters don't think they'll be called back, he said.
In the meantime two engines are out of service due to the reductions, he said. We've been lucky as far as fires go, Freitas said.
However, the emergency medical service calls can tax the department. A fire truck and an ambulance respond to calls such as a stabbing or cardiac arrest, because the firefighters are trained emergency medical technicians, Freitas explained. Often a firefighter will drive the ambulance to the hospital so the ambulance crew can attend to the person while en route. The other firefighter will drive the fire truck back to the station.
We have been very busy with all apparatus out simultaneously many times, leaving none to respond, he said.
Resources have been stretched thin to the point where it jeopardizes public safety, according to Freitas, and that could have been avoided had Mayor Tom Leighton accepted the concessions offered by the firefighters' union. The union offered to give back the $1,500 each member receives annually as part of a settlement from a few years ago, he said. The city budgeted $81,000 this year for the payments.
Still, Freitas said he wondered why the mayor focused on the firefighters union that had made contract concessions in 2004 when Leighton first took office. The union did not take a 3-percent pay raise and agreed to pay $1,500 a year for health care, the only union to do so.
We saved him roughly $5 million (over the course of the seven-year contract), Freitas said.
The union made concessions in the latest contract regarding vacations and modifying the pension.