WILKES-BARRE – Starting today, the number of firefighters assigned to each shift in Wilkes-Barre will drop by about four, but public safety should not suffer, the city's fire chief said.
Fire Chief Jay Delaney said he will assign 12 to 13 firefighters to each shift where he formerly assigned 16 to 17, following news Thursday that the city administration will lay off 11 firefighters to make up a $2 million revenue shortfall.
The city needs a minimum of 11 firefighters on duty to maintain normal coverage with two fire trucks and two life support equipped ambulances, according to Delaney. All three fire stations in the city will remain staffed 24 hours a day.
The department typically has three or four firefighters on vacation at any time, Delaney said, and there's no doubt that there will be overtime involved to keep the staffing at where we need to keep it at.
I believe the union and the administration really worked tirelessly for the last couple months to come to a resolution so we don't lose these firefighters, Delaney said. Am I happy with the situation? Of course not. Does it make things more difficult? Of course. But the number of firefighters that will remain at the stations will remain the same; (a minimum of) 11 firefighters on a shift serving the residents 24 hours a day.
When staffing is available the city will activate a third fire engine at the South Station; Delaney said it is unlikely the city will be able to activate that engine often with current staffing levels.
He also noted the cuts come in addition to five firefighters taking retirement incentives, and comes at one of the busiest times of year.
Mike Bilski, president of Local 104 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said he met with about 40 of the 64 members of the department Thursday night, and the feelings ranged from anger to upset to concerned.
Most of the guys feel the fire department is being singled out and picked on, Bilski said.
Bilski said he has contacted local state elected officials for help and counsel. He said the state chapter of IAF has offered to send representatives to the city to offer suggestions and advice on how to save the city money.
But the mayor has to be willing to listen, Bilski said. We realize it's too late for this year. But maybe we can get our guys back for 2013.
Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton said he wants to bring the firefighters back as soon as possible, but what the city can afford in 2013 is partially dependent on union concessions.
Leighton said he is asking all city employees to agree to a pay freeze in 2013, which would save the city $500,000.
The mayor also noted the firefighters had a no-layoff clause in their union contract, but traded that clause in a 2010 arbitration agreement that paid department members collectively more than $1 million in back pay.
Members of Wilkes-Barre's City Council said they hope the 11 firefighters will be brought back to work in 2013, but also that they do not want to overly burden taxpayers.
Councilman Tony George wrote in an email he would not vote for a budget that keeps fire department staffing at its current level.
These cuts would have the least (effect) on the safety of our residents along with the safety of our remaining firefighters, George wrote. I will not vote for any budget that creates a danger to our residents. I will vote for tax increases, before I let that happen.
Other council members reserved comment on how they would vote on the 2013 budget until they have seen it. Leighton and his administration are continuing to draft the city's 2013 budget after receiving recommendations on an initial proposal from council and city residents.
We recommended some changes and some things were brought up by the taxpayers, Councilwoman Maureen Lavelle said. I'm hoping that we would get a revised budget from the administration. We have to bring the millage down and hopefully not have layoffs. It's a big job and hopefully it's all going to come together.
Council Chairman Mike Merritt said council and the city administration are still trying to work through where we're all comfortable with the millage increase and the layoffs.
I'd like to see some of the firemen back to work personally, but I don't want to see people paying an increase of 30 percent in their property tax, Merritt said.
Councilman George Brown said council is continuing to make suggestions to the mayor about ways to curb city expenses but reserved saying how he would vote on the budget until he has seen it.
I would not vote for a safety risk for our residents, he said. But I have to rely on the folks like the chief of the fire department; those are the folks who are the experts. No one wants to jeopardize the safety of our citizens.
Councilman Bill Barrett said he wants to see cuts spread more evenly across all city departments.
I don't want to see one department shoulder it all, he said. If we need to go down 25 percent then we should go down 25 percent in all departments.
Barrett also said he would speak to Chief Delaney about fire department funding before casting his vote on the budget.
Leighton and Delaney said the 2013 budget proposal allocates about $9 million for the fire department, which Delaney said should be adequate to meet staffing needs.
City Administrative Coordinator Drew McLaughlin said other departments also have decreased in size through attritions, noting that City Hall staffing has been cut by about a third under Leighton.