WILKES-BARRE ‚?? A labor rally featuring warnings about safety and children bearing protest signs were vivid reminders Tuesday morning of the city‚??s controversial decision to lay off 11 firefighters.
Sydney Smith, 3, held a sign that read: ‚??Help my daddy.‚?Ě Her father, Eddie Smith, 40, is an 11-year veteran of the city fire department and one of the 11 people laid off last week.
‚??It‚??s stressful, very stressful,‚?Ě Smith said while walking the informational picket line. ‚??We‚??re worried if we‚??re going to get our jobs back. And we‚??re worried about health care for our kids.‚?Ě
The city is facing a $2 million shortfall to balance spending this year. Mayor Tom Leighton announced the layoffs last week in the midst of a fiscal crunch that has many people in the public crying for a harder scrutiny of city spending and budgeting.
In addition to the layoffs, Leighton‚??s proposed 2013 budget call for a 31-mill increase in property taxes and increases in fees.
Greg Freitas, vice president of Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said jobs that provide the safety of residents should be protected, even if taxes have to go up.
‚??Yes, the fire department is worth it,‚?Ě Freitas said. ‚??The safety of our people is worth it.‚?Ě
About 40 picketers ‚?? mostly city firefighters and their families ‚?? carried signs that read: ‚??Fire spreads in minutes, smoke kills in seconds,‚?Ě and ‚??How long will it take a firefighter to get to your house?‚?Ě
Firefighters from Kingston, Plains Township and Hazleton joined the picket line around City Hall.
Despite assurances from Leighton and Fire Chief Jay Delaney, the firefighters say the reduced ranks ‚?? now at 53 firefighters ‚?? could cause serious safety risks for residents. The union spokesmen also say that with several pre-planned December vacations, overtime costs will be high, reducing the actual savings.
‚??This isn‚??t a budget issue,‚?Ě Freitas said. ‚??It‚??s a safety issue.‚?Ě
Freitas and the firefighters urge residents to call City Council members and the mayor‚??s office to demand the firefighters be returned to work.
‚??Public safety shouldn‚??t revolve around a budget,‚?Ě Freitas said.
Mike Bilski, Local 104 president, said the pickets were deployed to spread awareness.
‚??We‚??re down to a dangerously low number,‚?Ě Bilski said. ‚??And we‚??re hearing the mayor is threatening to go lower.‚?Ě
Bilski said he met with the administration on Thursday ‚??with a written offer in hand that contained concessions with the proviso of a no-layoff clause.‚?Ě He said he was informed that it could not be done because 11 firefighters would be receiving layoff notices last Thursday evening or Friday.
‚??I made a verbal offer on Friday, via telephone, offering concessions with only one request,‚?Ě he said. ‚??I asked for a firm date as to how long my men would be laid off. The only answer was that it would depend on the 2013 budget.‚?Ě
Bilski said he has done some ‚??rough calculations‚?Ě using the current 11 firefighters per shift formula for the rest of December. He said since the layoffs, shifts have had to be bolstered with overtime.
‚??By the end of the month, with scheduled vacations and personal days, the city will be paying the equivalent of at least nine of the 11 laid off firefighters salaries back to on-duty firefighters in overtime,‚?Ě Bilski said. ‚??Where are the savings? I am asking for the recall of our firefighters to prevent massive overtime debt. It would be criminal to put any more apparatus out of service to prevent overtime.‚?Ě
Rob Stehle has been a city firefighter for 12 years. He was the last of 11 laid off last week. Stehle and his wife, Erika, and their 11-month-old daughter, Maci, walked the picket line Tuesday.
‚??Savings should have been looked for and found elsewhere before anybody was laid off,‚?Ě Stehle said, echoing a concern of several people who attended last week‚??s City Council meeting. ‚??Cut everything possible before safety is put at risk.‚?Ě
Stehle said the number of firefighters working per shift was already below recommended national averages before the layoffs.
‚??We‚??ve been given no assurances ‚?? no date on when we will be called back,‚?Ě he said.
Erika said she and her husband are concerned about insurance for their baby. Mrs. Stehle is a nurse at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, but the family is enrolled on her husband‚??s plan.
Stehle said the uncertainty is difficult to deal with for all firefighters. He said fewer people per shift jeopardizes firefighters‚?? safety as well.
‚??The city didn‚??t do its homework,‚?Ě he said.