OT leads city to close fire stations on rotating basis
YOUNGSTOWN — With the fire department already exceeding its yearly overtime budget in just the first five months of 2020, the city will close stations on a rotating basis to stop that expense from increasing.
Rotating the closure of stations, also called a brown out, is expected to begin Wednesday, fire Chief Barry Finley said Monday.
A station will only close if a firefighter calls off work, and there is a need to find a replacement, he said. Instead of bringing someone in on overtime, the department will close a station — each manned by three firefighters at a time — to fill the open spots.
Also, if more than three firefighters can’t report for their scheduled shift on a day, the department would close a second station, he said.
The stations to be closed would be rotated every two weeks, Finley said.
There are seven fire stations in the city.
“I’m out of overtime money,” Finley said. “I’m not pointing fingers. I have to do this. This is how fire chiefs save money. It’s not unusual. There’s no more money to get.”
During the first five months of this year, the fire department’s overtime was $115,566, according to Kyle Miasek, the city’s interim finance director.
The department’s overtime budget for 2020 was $110,000 so it’s already exceeded its yearly amount and that came after city council increased the initial $60,000 request by $50,000 in March.
In comparison, during the first five months of 2019, overtime at the department was $9,680, Miasek said.
Overtime paid in February, March and April of last year was $2,903 total. It was $41,834 alone this past April.
While the fire department started 2019 with minimal overtime, it ended that year over its $80,000 OT budget.
Through the first seven months of 2019, the department had spent $22,375 in overtime. That was before Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said the financially struggling city wouldn’t close stations on a rotating basis in August. Firefighters received $93,223 in overtime during the final five months of the year. Overtime for 2019 was $115,598 — $35,598 more than the budgeted amount.
“It took off, but I don’t think it was done on purpose,” Finley said.
Charlie Smith, the firefighters union president, said about the brown out: “Nothing surprises me with this administration. I’m sure they’ll blame it on the firefighters. We’re down eight firefighters in the past two years that they haven’t filled. The narrative they try to paint is that we call off sick. That’s not true at all. Firefighters get injured. It’s the nature of the business.”
He added: “We’re not going to be quiet about it. It’s dangerous for the firefighters and for the city.”
Brown said: “We don’t have any other options” than a brown out.
Closing stations “is a safety issue, but it’s more of a safety issue if you don’t come to work” and the department is short-staffed, Finley said. “That’s a bigger safety issue. I’m made out to be the bad guy for making these decisions. It’s my best option. We’ve got no other choice. I don’t want it to come from anywhere else in the budget.”
Besides, Miasek said, there isn’t any money in the budget.
The city will lose at least 15 percent of its income tax collections this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, and it could be worse.
The city had budgeted $43.5 million in income tax collections. A 15 percent loss is $6,525,000.
“We have to make cuts in the budget,” Miasek said. “There’s no available funds to be funneled into overtime to accommodate the fire department like there has been in the past.”
COVID-19 played a factor in overtime this year with $26,487.86 being paid to firefighters to cover for five who contracted the virus between March 25 and May 1, Finley said.
But at the pace the department is going, it would have exceeded overtime by the end of this month rather than the end of May, Miasek said.
Finley said because of the chaos of the pandemic he didn’t keep close tabs on overtime until a month ago.
“But I never thought we’d be at $90-, $95,000 at four months,” he said. “It wasn’t on the radar and then I ran the numbers.”
This occurred when there were less responses to fire calls in 2020 to 2019 during the first five months of the year. There were 1,276 fire runs through May 31 this year compared to 1,481 during the first five months of 2019.
Because of overtime issues in 2018, the city closed fire stations on a rotating basis for about three months. The city then chose to take a firetruck out of service. By doing that, the city demoted three fire captains and three lieutenants and freed up those six along with three firefighters to fill in for those who called off.
In addition to stopping overtime costs, the city saved about $110,000 annually in salary and benefits because of the demotions as well as $90,000 in the 2019 budget that was planned to be used to repair damages to the truck.
The firefighters union and Finley have had an uneasy relationship for the past couple of years.
The union issued a no-confidence vote against the chief in December 2019 after expressing concerns about his leadership style. The city also closed Fire Station No. 7 on Madison Avenue on the North Side that month over the objections of the union.
The two sides argued about the department’s radio system for about two years with the city agreeing in December 2019 to improve it — at an estimated cost of $285,000 — with the work to be done late this year. On Monday, Finley said because of the pandemic, the system likely won’t be in place until 2021.
To pay for the radio upgrades, the city chose in October 2019 to eliminate three battalion chief positions through attrition. But the State Employment Relations Board ruled in April that the city violated the union’s collective bargaining rights by eliminating the position as retaliation after agreeing to the radio improvements.
The city has appealed the decision to SERB but will almost certainly lose. The administration has eliminated just one of the three positions and had been ordered by SERB to fill it.