Saturday, December 9, 2023

City Council Speaks on Fire Department Staffing Levels

City of Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey blamed the firefighters’ union as one of the causes of the currently low staffing levels in the city’s fire department. City Council members took turns discussing the staffing crisis during their regularly scheduled meeting last night. Councilman Omari Shakur accused firefighters and police of “robbing” the city.

City Manager Todd Venning noted that two probationary firefighters graduated the fire academy last month. Two new probationary firefighters have been hired and will begin the academy next month. The Council also voted last night to purchase a new, $1.2 million ladder truck with a 105 foot ladder.

Councilman Anthony Grice explained that the problems began in 2019 when New York State nearly declared the City of Newburgh as insolvent. This would have resulted in all city agencies ceasing to exist and all employees being laid off. New York State would have come in and taken over the city. Harvey stated that when the 2020 proposed budget came before the Council, “We had to make the most difficult decision that I think I probably had to make in my entire natural born life, which was to lay off police officers and firefighters.” He stated the Council had to lay off approximately 15 firefighters and police officers in each department.

“No one in their right mind would lay off police officers and firefighters in an urban city with the demographics that we have in the City of Newburgh,” Harvey said. “It was the worst decision this Council had to make.”

Harvey recalled that COVID struck shortly after the layoffs occurred. Three months after the layoffs, New York State was shut down. The City of Newburgh continued providing essential services. “Not one person got laid off or furloughed,” he reported. “Every employee after the shutdown remained on their jobs and paid.”

Council members explained that the City of Newburgh is recovering from the financial disaster just three years ago and recently received an A-3 rating from Moody’s Investor Services. Harvey said this is the first time the city has ever received such a high rating. Grice observed that most city departments are now doing well, but the police and fire departments still need more staffing.

“Really, we should be patting ourselves on the back,” Councilwoman Ramona Monteverde boasted about the City’s financial health. “It’s a day to celebrate!”

Harvey stated the City Council wants to help the fire department, but blamed resistance from the union for the current staffing levels.

“Let it be known, the firefighters’ union refuses to come to the table to negotiate with the negotiation team,” Harvey declared. “We are not a part of the negotiations for contracts.” He said the Council wants to raise the salaries in the fire and police departments so they are competitive.

“We want to restore the numbers in the fire department and the police department to where they were before 2020,” Harvey continued. “We want to manage the overtime so that we can reallocate those funds and staff both departments fully.”

Shakur, however, angrily lashed out at the police and fire departments. He said the fire and police departments have been absorbing half of the city budget for the past two decades. “And the rest of our city has to live off the other half of that budget,” he complained. He claimed firefighters and police are being paid $5 million in overtime.

“They was robbing our city,” Shakur exclaimed. “We’re putting a stop to that!”

The councilman, who has previously called the City of Newburgh Police “pigs”, continued on a rant about firefighters and police. “They’ve already been getting half our budget and then they’ve been wanting overtime!”

Dan Camacho, a Lieutenant with the City of Newburgh Fire Department, addressed the Council about the overtime and staffing levels.

“The progress in the City is undeniable,” he conceded. He attributed the progress to the work of the City Council.

“As a citizen, there’s nothing but good news,” Camacho continued. “As an employee though, we can’t help but to feel that some of this progress is at the expense of our safety. My safety. The safety of the citizens.”

Camacho explained the importance of safety. “Me going home to my wife and kids. Citizens having a house to come home to,” he added. “That’s paramount. That’s above everything else.”

Camacho pointed out that firefighters have tried to create revenue for the City of Newburgh. In the past, the fire department tried to run an ambulance company, but the idea was balked at.

Responding to the complaints about overtime, Camacho quipped back, “I don’t write my own checks.” He explained that overtime is hired per legally binding contracts agreed upon by city officials and union members. “To be blamed for the woes of the city, its not us. There’s a legally binding contract sitting there that was bargained in good faith.”

Another City of Newburgh firefighter began reading a letter from Africa Pickens, who was the driver of the first pumper that responded to the recent deadly fire on Lander Street.

Pickens, a 23-year firefighter, stated, “I vehemently disagree with Mayor Harvey’s claims that this tragedy occurred due to the engine being blocked, a late 911 call, or a grease fire being self-extinguished with water.” Harvey then abruptly cut off the firefighter reading Pickens’ letter and did not allow him to finish.

Regarding the fire and police departments, Monteverde stated, “It’s been a struggle, I understand, but we’re on that road to recovery and hopefully now we will have that money in the budget to increase staffing, to give the raises to the police department and the fire department that we’ve been holding off on for a very long time because we’re just trying to balance this budget.”

Councilwoman Giselle Martinez chimed in, “I know it can be a little bit hard to work with less than what you need, but we are catching up and I think in no time we’ll be even better.” She said the City of Newburgh “has been doing great.”

Grice reiterated Harvey’s comments about the contract. He said he has been in communication with the fire chief and police commissioner and they are in contract negotiations, but the City Council does not handle nor ratify the contracts. “It is not appropriate for me as an elected official to talk about the contract.”

“However, when the budget does come, I fully intend to keep my promise to them of the staffing needs that they have and the equipment needs that they have,” Grice vowed.

“It is not 100% the firefighters’ faults,” Grice concluded.

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