Saturday, June 30, 2018
By David Skolnick
With fire-department overtime spiraling out of control, the fire chief decided, beginning Sunday, to start closing stations on a rotating basis for two-week periods to rein in spending.
In a surprise move Friday, Chief Barry Finley announced at a city council finance committee meeting that the department would temporarily close stations and use the three or so firefighters who would work there at other stations to make up for a staffing shortfall to save overtime.
The decision, Finley said, resulted because the department has spent $105,854 of its annual $108,000 overtime budget. In just the past 10 days, the department spent about $22,000 on overtime, he said.
The first station to close is No. 15 on Schenley Avenue and McCollum Road on the West Side, Finley said. It was to close last week when the chief initially decided to shut down stations on a rotating basis to stop overtime expenses. But that decision was stopped the night before the station was to close.
Instead, Finley was leaning toward using most of an $85,000 fund to replace the rusted frame of a firetruck toward overtime costs.
Council objected to that move, but some changed their mind after Finley on Thursday discussed a long-term plan for raising revenue for his department. None of that money would be raised this year, however.
Finley said Friday the $85,000 wouldn’t be enough to cover overtime costs for the rest of the year at the rate the department is spending it.
He said by closing stations on a rotating basis, the department will not spend any additional money on overtime.
“I was surprised by the decision because he’d been saying the $85,000 would carry him through the end of the year,” said Councilwoman Lauren McNally, D-5th and chairwoman of the finance committee. “He made the decision. We need long-term solutions to all of our financial problems.”
Capt. Christopher Weaver, the firefighters’ union secretary, said, “It’s kind of disappointing to us. It’s new to be thrown at us. It’s hard to say if the $85,000 would have been enough. But I would have liked to see us use that and see if that would work.”
Councilwoman Basia Adamczak, D-7th and vice chairwoman of the finance committee, said Finley did the “fiscally responsible” thing by having the $85,000 go toward repairing a firetruck, and closing stations on a rotating basis.
The 127-member department has eight firefighters off duty with injuries causing the need for overtime. Three department members are expected back in the next week to 10 days, Finley said.
“Closing a station [on a rotating basis] will save the overtime,” he said. “You better believe it.”
In two weeks, Station No. 9 on East Midlothian Boulevard on the South Side will be closed followed by No. 3 on Belle Vista Avenue on the West Side for two weeks, and then the department’s other stations – eight total – will be shut down for two-week periods.
If there is an issue where other firefighters are injured, it’s possible two or three stations could be closed to stop overtime expenses, Finley said.
When the department has the staff, there will be days when no stations are closed, he said.
“Is the response time going to be a little longer? Yes,” Finley said. “But we’ll respond to fires at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and at 2 o’clock in the morning. The fire department being down one truck is not going to stop us from doing our job.”
The city is facing a financial crisis with a general-fund deficit projected by an analyst at $16 million by 2023.
The city’s general fund is budgeted this year to end with only a $12,000 surplus.
Finley’s long-term plan, proposed Thursday, includes collecting new revenue beginning in January and a city-run ambulance starting no sooner than two years from now.
Finley said Thursday it would be a mistake to permanently close a station and reduce staff now. That’s because the department has to maintain a minimum of 127 to keep a federal grant paying a majority of the salaries of four firefighters.
Forfeiting that grant would almost certainly mean the department wouldn’t receive other federal money for the next three to six years, he said. The grant expires in fall 2020.
At that time, the department can close a fire station, likely No. 7 at 142 Madison Ave., near the Youngstown State University campus, and consolidate it with the No. 1 downtown station, Finley said.