See our message to the Newburgh City Council beneath this editorial
Controversy surrounding the staffing levels of the City of Newburgh Fire Department has turned into a firestorm within the community as well as between the union and city leaders. Monday night’s City Council meeting was heated (story here) following a fatal fire last month (story here). The issue stems from recent downsizing to only seven firefighters manning two rigs per shift.
Most people can agree that nothing is going to be resolved when tensions are this high. Councilman Anthony Grice hit the nail on the head when he suggested that everyone work together in a collaborative way instead of name-calling and bashing. Both sides need to step back for a moment and deescalate.
There are too many issues to discuss in one editorial. Instead, we will make suggestions for fixing the problem.
Most members of the City Council argue that they are not responsible for personnel matters or staffing levels since they are a legislative branch of government. They say that’s the City Manager’s job. This is all true, but the Council does have other options.
First, every year, the Council votes to approve the budget. The budget can be changed each year to provide additional funding, if needed.
Second, the City Council could enact legislation requiring a certain minimum staffing level for each shift. Last year, New York State passed legislation requiring privately owned nursing homes to maintain certain staffing levels. If the state can do this for private businesses, surely the City Council can enact similar legislation for its own fire department.
Third, the City Manager is appointed by the City Council. If the City Council is not happy with the staffing levels, they can ask the City Manager to increase them. The City Manager would likely comply. If he refuses, the Council could replace him with someone who better aligns with their needs.
Mayor Torrance Harvey cited firefighter overtime costs eating up the budget. He blamed a captain who banked $216,000 last year and several firefighters who made over $100,000, all due to working overtime. A firefighter with a base salary under $90,000 must work an astronomical amount of extra hours to earn that much money. This is all extra time beyond their 40-hour work weeks. It is likely they worked 60-80 hours every week for much of the year, barely ever being home.
Overtime money is not handed out for free as part of a get-rich-quick scheme. It is hired due to staff vacancies on a shift, whether it be from a firefighter who is out sick, inured, or on vacation. When a school teacher calls out sick, a substitute teacher is called in from home and earns extra money. It is the same principle.
Mayor Harvey forgot to mention one thing while complaining about six-figure salaries. Last year, he collected a salary of $113,581 teaching social studies in the Newburgh School District. We do not blame Harvey for this. He clearly worked hard to earn his job – and so did the firefighters. A firefighter’s salary is significantly lower than Harvey’s teaching salary. A firefighter must work hundreds of hours of overtime just to reach Harvey’s straight-time salary.
The Council can easily kill two birds with one stone – alleviate the overtime costs and restore the previous staffing levels by hiring more firefighters.
The Newburgh News, LLC has a strong message for the Newburgh City Council:
In a democracy, the residents elect you to represent their voices. The residents have spoken loud and clear – they want adequate fire protection. No residents have asked for less firefighters. We urge you to enact local legislation creating a minimum requirement for daily staffing levels set in accordance with national standards. Shame on you for putting a price tag on the lives of the same residents who elected you. Stop saying “it’s not our job” and resolve this life-threatening emergency facing the city. There comes a time when elected officials need to put their personal beliefs aside and follow the citizens’ wishes. This is that time. One way or another, the residents will have the final say. Election Day is just around the corner and your constituents are angry.