The City of Newburgh Fire Department is on track to lose 12 fire- fighters following the passing of the city’s draconian 2018 budget, which did not set aside funding to pay for the positions.
“It’s a painful, painful, between-a-rock-and-hard-place situation to be in,” said city Mayor Judy Kennedy at a Newburgh City Council meeting last week. “Here we are with firefighters we can’t keep. Here we are needing police officers. We need equipment, we have a $40-million sewer problem… Every which way you turn, more money is needed.”
The positions are funded through the end of July by a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The more than $2-million grant was awarded to the city twice in a row and city fire officials say it is highly unlikely they will see another.
“To get it one time is a big deal, and very few departments get it twice,” said city Assistant Fire Chief Terry Ahlers. “I don’t believe anyone has ever received it a third time.”
The fire department averages about 125 fire incidents per year, Ahlers said. The size of the force went up to 68 last year. “We have the manpower we need and it shows,” Ahlers said. “We’ve been able to put extra fire fighters in the street, doing inspections and code enforcement. Our building permit numbers are up.”
Code-enforcement officers are finding illegal night clubs and all manner of buildings that lack required permits, he said. “We won’t have the people to do it,” said Ahlers, speaking of the impending layoffs. “We’re going to lose ground. Everything we’ve done to improve the city, improve safety and cut fire loss is going to go out the window.”
The budget also brought cuts in overtime for the fire fighters, he pointed out. “When we’re down to bare bones, where we only have three people on the fire truck,” Ahlers said. “If one guy takes off, that will result in overtime.”
“The only way to cut overtime is to have enough people,” Ahlers asserted. When asked what he thought the ultimate outcome of losing 12 fire fighters would be, he didn’t sugar coat it. “Injuries are going to go up and the fires that we have are going to be bigger,” he said.
City officials defended the decision not to fund the positions Tuesday, saying the money simply wasn’t there. “Even if we raised taxes all the way to the tax cap, there would have been layoffs,” said city Comptroller Katie Mack. “It was just one of the difficult choices we had to make this year.”
Mack noted the 12 positions would have cost about $1.2 million for the year. “We are just turning the corner on increasing revenue sources,” Mack said, including parking lots and meters at the waterfront, but current revenues are not sufficient to cover positions previously paid for by a grant.
The comptroller was asked why the city hadn’t planned ahead to fund the positions when a third SAFER grant was not expected. “It’s not that they aren’t the priority, they just aren’t the only priority,” she said. “The question was, which fire we should put out first?”
The city is currently in negotiations with the International Association of Fire Fighters union to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement. City fire officials have been in touch with the offices of Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney and Senator Chuck Schumer to inquire about possible assistance, Ahlers said. “We’re trying to find a solution,” he said.
“We’re talking to other fire departments to try to find these guys places to work,” said Ahlers on Monday. “They feel like they’ve been let down. After all their hard work, the city is just throwing it away.”
By SHANTAL RILEY