By David Skolnick
Concerned about the city’s struggling finances, Mayor John A. McNally and Fire Chief John J. O’Neill Jr. have come up with a plan to save about $1 million annually, largely from taking a firetruck off the road.
The plan would almost certainly not involve layoffs as several fire department workers are retiring in the coming months, O’Neill said.
Taking the truck out of full service — it can be used in emergencies, if needed — eliminates three captains, three lieutenants and two firefighters, O’Neill and McNally said. This will be done some time in mid- December.
There are at least that number of fire employees looking to retire by then, and as many as 18 will retire by the end of 2015, O’Neill said.
“It’s very doable by attrition,” he said.
But if by some “very minimal” chance there aren’t three captains, three lieutenants and two firefighters retired by mid-December, there would be layoffs, O’Neill said.
The staff reduction will save $781,000 annually from not having to pay salary, health-care costs and other benefits, O’Neill said.
Also, using new firefighters rather than lieutenants in the inspection wing of the fire department will save the city $231,000 annually, he said.
While other retirees will be replaced, the eight positions that need to be eliminated by the end of the year won’t be. That will leave the department with 130 on staff. Of those in the department, 54 of them were hired in the last six years, O’Neill said.
There are no plans to close any of the city’s eight fire stations, McNally said.
“The chief concerns are to make sure people are safe and we have fast response times” to fires, McNally said. “Those will not be impacted by this. It also helps the long-term financial health of the city.”
The city needs to start making reductions in its budget beginning in 2015 as it’s the last of three years in which Vallourec Star will give $2.9 million to the city for land the company leased for its $1.1 billion expansion plant, McNally said. Also, income-tax collections are down about $500,000 so far this year from what was anticipated for this time, he said.
“We need to start looking at cuts in 2015 because 2016 is the year we’ll have financial issues and challenges,” McNally said. “You have to prepare for 2016 by making reductions in 2015 and to start thinking about them now.”
The reduction in fire department staff is justified by a reduction in fires, the mayor said.
In 2013, there were 326 fires compared with 412 the year before, he said. Also, 2014 is on pace to be similar to 2013 rather than 2012, McNally said.
The city will apply for a federal grant that would provide funding for firefighters for three years, O’Neill and McNally said.
David Cook, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 312, said, “I’m trying to change their minds about this, but I don’t think it was something they decided yesterday. It’s the same amount of work with less people. It’s going to catch up with you sooner or later.”
Cook also wants the city to apply for the federal grant.
As for reducing the number of firefighters, Cook said, “I can’t say we like it or that we’re for it.”
The city cannot ask voters to increase the 2.75 percent Youngstown income tax, and firefighters haven’t had a pay raise in more than five years, Cook said.
The city will start negotiating a new contract with the firefighters union in the next week or so. The city has recently agreed to contracts with other unions that call for raises of 1 percent this year, 1.5 percent next year and 1 percent in 2016.
“The small pay raises people are receiving are minimal over time and are less important in how we reduce costs in the fire department,” McNally said.