Yonkers needs firefighters' help with budget gap
Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano is taking a lot of heat from city firefighters who don't want him to crack down on what the Democrat is calling a "systematic abuse" of sick leave.
The numbers are enough to make any taxpayer ill.
On any given day, roughly 20 percent of the city's 423-member department — among the highest-paid in the country and given unlimited sick time — are calling in sick "every single shift of every single day," according to Spano.
That costs Yonkers $8 million a year — about $2 million more than is budgeted for firefighter overtime.
In a proposal floated recently, the mayor wants to modify staffing so that the city would bring in replacements only if the number falls below 48 on a given shift, as opposed to the current level of 54.
This modest change would save roughly $6 million and help avoid layoffs as the city deals with a $90 million gap in its $937.8 million annual budget.
This plan wouldn't automatically lower the number of firefighters on a shift, but simply change the level at which reserves are called in for overtime. In exchange for the savings, Spano says he will forgo laying off 37 members of the department.
In a typical scenario under this plan, five trucks -- as opposed to six -- would still immediately respond to an emergency and others would be sent as needed.
This reasonable approach provides the city with much-needed flexibility and saves firefighter jobs.
But because minimum manning requirements are in the firefighters' contract, the mayor needs their help, and so far all they have promised to do is fight it with very public protests and in court, if necessary.
A 2010 report from the Yonkers inspector general cited the city's sick leave policy as a problem and concluded that firefighters miss, on average, 10 tours a year — that's the equivalent of 16 sick days for a more traditional, five-day-a-week job.
Firefighter union leaders say members have cut down on sick time and the union has proposed savings like forgoing an $800-a-year uniform allowance, carrying forward personal days for the future, and defering a week's pay until they retire — modest givebacks that were rightly rejected by city leaders because they don't provide significant savings.
And union leaders accused Spano, who had their backing in his run for mayor, of scapegoating them for Yonkers’ dire fiscal problems.
He's not. Spano's taking a hard look at the numbers and trying to find solutions that are far less painful than what other municipalities and counties like Rockland and Nassau are going through. In addition to firefighters, he has said he may have to lay off police, public works employees and other city personnel.
City firefighters do exemplary work, and they are paid well: Of the department's 465 members in 2010, 339 firefighters earned more than $100,000, with 50 of them bringing in more than $150,000.
The savings proposed by Spano can't be dismissed, not while the city is trying to stabilize its finances and fend off the return of a state financial control board.