By Denise Dick
BOARDMAN — Last November, all three township fire stations reopened after voters approved a police and fire levy, but one of those stations is closed again because of money woes.
The closure will alternate between the South Avenue station and the one on Shields Road at Lockwood Boulevard, said Administrator Jason Loree, and it may not be every day. It will depend on the number of people working per day.
It begins today with closure of the South Avenue station.
“Overtime is over what we appropriated for the year” in the fire department, Loree said. “To stop the overruns in the department, we had to close a station.”
The fire department has exceeded its overtime budget for the year by about $45,000.
Trustee Chairman Larry Moliterno said the revenue from the 2.2-mill police and fire levy is coming in lower than anticipated because of the economic downturn. It had been projected to generate about $2 million annually.
“The economy is taking its toll on the township resources, but we’re doing everything that we can to make sure it doesn’t affect services,” he said.
The township is awaiting completion of an analysis by the state auditor’s office to determine if it’s in either fiscal watch or fiscal emergency.
Fire Chief James Dorman said the department’s overtime has gotten out of hand, forcing the department toward deficit spending.
The department was on track to stay within its budget until four firefighters were off for an extended time after being injured on duty. The department also lost two firefighters — one resigned and one died — contributing to overtime, the chief said.
The fire department was projected to receive $534,000 from the levy but only $319,000 has been collected and allotted for the department, he said.
Dorman said he looked at other options but closing a station made the most sense both economically and in terms of service.
No layoffs are expected. Closing one station when necessary allows all personnel to continue working, the chief said.
Today through the weekend, the South Avenue station will close. After that the station closed will depend on at which one a shortage occurs, he said.
Based on vacations scheduled, Dorman expects all three stations will be open half the time through this year.
To keep three stations open, 10 firefighters must be on duty at a time, Dorman said. Minimum manning in the contract calls for eight firefighters on duty per shift.
“When I close a fire station down, we don’t have to worry about having 10 on duty,” he said. “We revert to eight — three in the outlying station and five in the main.”
Firefighters worry about the perception that they have done something to cause the problem, but it’s contractual, he said.
“People have a right to be upset that they passed a levy to keep fire stations open, but circumstances changed,” Dorman said.
Harry Wolfe, president of the International Association of Professional Firefighters Local 1176, says the problem of high overtime could have been alleviated if the township had replaced the two firefighters. With being down additional people, more overtime should be expected, he said.
The union chief said he met with Loree and the township’s labor attorney about 1 1/2 months ago and the issue of overtime came up. He said he offered to enact a tiered wage system where new fire department hires would earn a lower wage than those already on the payroll. About five firefighters are expected to retire within the next year.
“The township never followed up with us on it,” Wolfe said.
Loree acknowledged the offer but said it came with the condition that firefighters be replaced. The township didn’t believe that would provide the cost savings needed.
While a bifurcated wage scale will likely be beneficial to the township in the long term, it needs a solution that can be applied in the short-term, Loree said. The township will send notice to the firefighters’ union and ask them to negotiate to try to come up with a solution, the administrator said.
Wolfe points out that the union already agreed to pay freezes through 2011 and increased members’ health-insurance contributions to 10 percent uncapped.
Moliterno said the township is trying to make changes that save money while not harming services.
Trustee Robyn Gallitto agreed.
“We tried to put a conservative levy on the ballot to make sure we weren’t taxing people so much — because the 4.1-mill levy failed — but because of the economic downturn, it’s not generating what we thought it would,” she said.
Those factors, combined with the loss of two firefighters and injuries that sidelined others, triggered more overtime, she said.
“It’s certainly not something we foresaw.”
Trustee Kathy Miller, who was out of town, was upset about the decision. “This should have been done in a public meeting with input from the public and from the employees,” she said.
Trustees just met last week, and the issue wasn’t addressed, she said, adding that she first learned about the problem in the fire department budget late last week. No formal discussions among trustees were conducted, Miller said.
The South Avenue station closed for a few months, and the Shields-Lockwood station closed periodically through much of last year because of a manpower shortage due to the layoff of nine firefighters in early 2008. The same week voters passed the levy in November 2008, trustees called six of the laid-off firefighters back to work, and all three stations opened.