Friday, September 29, 2023

Sparks Fly at Newburgh City Council Meeting Over Firefighter Cutbacks

A City of Newburgh firefighter was kicked out of last night’s City Council meeting under a police escort for telling the Council they have blood on their hands in the death of a woman in a fatal fire last month. The meeting grew tense at a few points as residents and firefighters opposed council members.

The controversy comes after a mother died and her son was seriously injured in a building fire with entrapment at 68 Lander Street last month. In January of 2022, city leaders reduced staffing levels to its fire department and took a pumper truck out of service.

Last night, angry residents and firefighters demanded additional funding for the fire department. Council members insisted they need to save money for the taxpayers. The mayor complained that a fire captain made $216,000 last year and offered a compromise: Allow the City Manager to hire part-time firefighters or allow volunteer firefighters to join. Many of the City of Newburgh paid firefighters also serve as volunteer firefighters in neighboring departments.

City Manager Todd Venning discussed the fire and noted it spread to four other buildings. He stated that fire and police reports indicate “there were many circumstances out of the fire department’s control which resulted in this outcome.” He attributed it to a delayed 911 call which caused the fire to rapidly spread before fire units arrived, an inability of the ladder truck to assist in rescue due to electrical wires in the way of the aerial ladder, a trailer parked on the street which blocked the pumper, an occupant who added water to a grease fire, and an escaping occupant who left the front door wide open which caused rapid fire spread.

“There was again a delayed 911 call which caused the fire to spread rapidly before our guys got on the scene,” said Venning. However, he then stated, “Our fire department arrived on the scene within one minute of the fire starting.”

Venning added, “Within one minute, the fire was apparently so robust that a male had jumped from the third story window upon arrival.” He explained that the staircase serving as the only practical exit for third floor occupants had been burned away before firefighters arrived. Next door neighbor Weaver Ebert, an off-duty 24-year veteran FDNY firefighter, attempted to rescue the occupants but was hindered by the burned out staircase.

Venning even defended the firefighters: “So many different things went wrong that it would be difficult to suggest that there was anything that the fire department could’ve done to prevent this.”

Prior to the public comment section, Mayor Torrance Harvey warned, “We’re already hearing curse words coming from this side of the room, I believe from our firefighters, and if it continues, we will have you escorted out of this building by our police department.”

Harvey later got into a screaming match with Scott Miles, who identified himself as a resident of Beacon Street in the City of Newburgh. Harvey later said Miles is a City of Newburgh firefighter. “The way that woman died, nobody deserves to die like that,” Miles explained. “All because the city wants to save money that they can afford to spend.” He warned all residents, especially those in complexes, “If we get a fire like that at night, somebody’s in trouble.”

“All you guys have blood on your hands,” Miles declared to the Council. Harvey abruptly interrupted Miles, screaming two times, “That’s where you crossed the line!” The mayor continued hollering, “Order in the City Council!” As the two argued back and forth, Harvey then screamed at police two times, “Please remove this man!” Miles exclaimed, “No, you got blood on your hands!” As a loud exchange continued between Harvey and Miles, the City of Newburgh Police escorted Miles out. Harvey continued repeatedly yelling as police exited with Miles.

“All you guys have blood on your hands!”

City of Newburgh resident and firefighter Scott Miles to the City Council

Harvey continued, “You are not going to stand here and disrespect this city council and this city government, and you’re an employee! Order! Order in the Council!”

Harvey, still agitated, hollered at the audience, “Now if there’s anybody else that’s an employee of this city who wants to be disrespectful, I invite you to leave!” He warned the public, “If you want to be out of order, I invite you to leave before you escorted out by our city police department.”

Harvey exclaimed, “We’re not gonna talk about blood on our hands!”

“We’re not gonna talk about blood on our hands!”

Newburgh City Mayor Torrance Harvey

The man who was seriously injured in the fire, Justin Benedict, was recently released from the hospital and attended the meeting on crutches to discuss the fire department. “I lost my mother, I could’ve lost my life if it wasn’t for them, and I thank them for that,” he said. “I plead with you all to listen to what your fire department has to say.”

“I plead with you all to listen to what your fire department has to say.”

Justin Benedict, who was seriously injured in the fire that killed his mother.

Justin Benedict’s brother, James Benedict, questioned, “I would like to know why there were only 7 firefighters on the scene. Why would that be allowed?” Harvey replied, “I can’t get into a back and forth with you,” and explained that he can answer questions at the conclusion of the public comments.

“I just think its sad that the fire department was that bad. It was a manpower issue,” Justin Benedict observed. “I was born and raised up here and it makes me feel disgusted that this was allowed to happen to my mother.”

Ebert, the neighbor and off-duty FDNY firefighter who attempted to rescue the Benedict family, is also displaced from the fire. He said he was enjoying the night and suddenly heard a “scream of distress.” Ebert advised the City Council that more manpower is needed. “The only difference running in is I have a troop behind me in New York City,” he observed. “You can’t do your job alone.”

Nick Bedetti, the President of the union representing City of Newburgh firefighter and a Lieutenant in the City of Newburgh Fire Department, told the Council, “At January’s Council meeting, we begged you to reconsider the staffing change that came from the City Manager.” He said his membership asked city leaders several times to go to the firehouse and see what they do. “We told you the staffing change would result in an increase in property loss and possibly a life. Well, exactly six months to the day of this staffing change, our worst fears became reality.”

“Our worst fears became reality.”

Nick Bedetti, President of the City of Newburgh Firefighters IAFF Local 589

Bedetti was working on the ladder truck when they were dispatched to the fire. He described, “With heavy fire throughout the building and water coming from the west end of the city four minutes away, there was no way to gain access to the reported victim trapped on the third floor.” He said if they had the manpower to staff their second pumper, the rig would have been on-scene within one minute to provide water.

“I demand you instruct the City Manager to reinstate our 10-man minimum, giving us Engine 1 back,” Bedetti told the Council amid a public applause.

Later during the night, Bedetti was kicked out for interrupting the meeting and speaking out of turn. Bedetti and Harvey began arguing, at which time police were instructed to escort Bedetti out of the building.

Tim Dexter, an Ann Street resident and 21-year veteran firefighter, addressed the Council on January 10, 2022 to warn of the danger from the staffing cuts. He attended last night’s meeting to reiterate. “I told you these levels would make us choose between doing a rescue or put the fire out. We would not be able to do both. And guess what happened.”

Dexter said that because of the cuts, a ladder truck with three men and no water scrambled into a blazing fire to attempt to rescue a victim trapped on the top floor. Simultaneously, the same crew had to treat a victim who jumped from the top floor. The crew had no water to stop the fire from spreading and allegedly waited four minutes for their pumper to arrive from the West End. The next pumper arrived 16 minutes later coming from Stewart Airport, Dexter noted. “I cannot wrap my head around why the city manager, who has no firefighting experience, refuses to listen to or trust the experience of his professional firefighters,” he added.

Rich Fracasse, a local business owner and Grand Street resident, declared, “I’m here to call for a special investigation to find out what went wrong.” He cautioned the Council that “somebody else is going to die” if the City Council does not resolve the issue. “And then somebody else is going to get pissed off and taken out of the building.”

Fracasse repeated himself, “Someone else is going to die. It may be one of these firemen.” He advised the Council, “Sometimes you gotta spend the money.”

“That woman burned to freaking death in that house crying for help.”

Rich Fracasse, City of Newburgh business owner and resident

Fracasse again stated, “Somebody else is going to die. That woman burned to freaking death in that house crying for help.”

Councilman Omari Shakur slammed the firefighters and implied there are too many white people in the department. He said when he was first elected, 80% of Newburgh residents were black and Hispanic, as opposed to city firefighters being almost 70% white. “The only time they come here to these meetings are when they’re here for their jobs,” he said. “They don’t come here when our tenants die, they don’t come here about the housing, they don’t come here about no other issues in our community, and then they got the nerve to say they feel about this tragedy.”

“They full of crap”, Shakur hollered. “They here for their jobs! They don’t care about this community!”

“They don’t care about this community!”

Councilman Omari Shakur regarding the City of Newburgh firefighters

Shakur went on, “They not here ’cause of that lady dying, ’cause if they was here, they would make sure these apartments and stuff was looking better, they would make sure that maybe they would live in this community if they cared about it and maybe they could respond faster.”

Shakur continued, “Don’t come here talking about the death of this woman like you care.”

A majority of the Council members said they have no say in the staffing levels because they are a legislative body, although some doubled down on the need to save money in the Council-approved budget.

“The mayor does not have any say in personnel matters,” Harvey stated.

Councilman Anthony Grice explained the Council’s role when it comes to the union contract which is currently being negotiated. Staffing levels and overtime are contractual items and cannot be set by the Council. However, he issued words of advice to the union: “If you work with us, we are able to help more.”

“If you work with us, we are able to help more.”

Councilman Anthony Grice to the fire department’s union.

“The name calling and the bashing and all those other things, for me personally, they do not work,” Grice continued. “Let’s approach it in a more collaborative way.”

Councilwoman Patty Sofokles concurred, “We really are not the ones who sit down and negotiate. We have to keep saying that. It’s not our job.” She said the City Manager and fire department leaders are responsible for staffing levels.

Councilwoman Ramona Monteverde stated she was focused on bringing down overtures in the budget. All citywide departments were examined, in particular the police and fire departments. She said if the City continued paying high amounts of overtime, it would not be sustainable for the taxpayers.

Monteverde said, “I am happy to and open to looking at this again, but again, we have to do what’s right for the entire city for this community.”

Councilman Robert Sklarz told the public, “It’s important to remember that this is a staffing reallocation, not a staffing reduction.” He also said taxpayers cannot sustain overtime and firefighters consistently exceeded the budget. “We’re resolved to trying to control the spending of overtime because its out of control,” he said.

Sklarz expressed his disdain that the union went public with the issue. He said they could have filed a grievance, an improper practice suit, or a lawsuit. He went on, “But instead, you took it to the media and I can tell you its not working.”

According to Harvey, Bedetti was allegedly caught on video blaming him for the fire during the worst part of the incident. “For a Lieutenant to say this is the mayor’s fault while somebody’s screaming for their life is unacceptable and has been duly noted.”

Harvey complained about how much money firefighters are making which contributed to the cutbacks.

According to Harvey, last year’s top earner in the Newburgh Fire Department was a Captain who made $216,000, although the salary is only $87,000. Harvey said the second highest earner banked $176,000, despite a salary of $72,000.

“There has to be a compromise,” Harvey observed. “There’s no way the City of Newburgh can sustain that level of overtime and put it on the taxpayers that actually live here when we’ve decreased the tax levy three years in a row.”

Venning offered to increase the staffing levels if the union allows him to hire part-time firefighters and/or volunteers. Harvey supported this idea, but implied the union is against it. However, Harvey said that Bedetti, the union president, is a volunteer firefighter in Vail’s Gate, along with five other paid Newburgh firemen. He said many of the City’s paid firefighters also volunteer in New Windsor, the Town of Newburgh, and Cornwall.

“They volunteer in those towns but we pay for you to provide fire services for the City of Newburgh,” Harvey observed. “We want to increase your staffing, but the leadership in that union has to be willing to make compromises with the City Manager.”

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  1. I’m sure the overtime that was paid had been mainly due to if the city cut back on staffing they need to realize this in its self would increase overtime. As for the Remark from one of the board members that there were to many whites in the fire Department well he should be told to apologize for that remark it had nothing to do with anything that was going on,he was just stoking racial tension and that for sure wouldn’t help anything

  2. Why don’t you ask Mr Harvey how he laid off Firefighters, to so call save money, BUT Hire a damn assistant and the Council Gave Themselves ALL RAISES! Typical Politics for a very corrupt Council, and 1 Should be behind bars anyway. Look at his social media and his antics

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