By JOE LoTEMPLIO
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Frustrated over what he sees as a lack of cooperation by the firefighters’ union, City of Plattsburgh Mayor Donald Kasprzak is calling for a restructuring of the Fire Department.
The union says it is the mayor who is not cooperating and has a vendetta against them.
“This department is simply no longer affordable or feasible for city taxpayers, and we have no choice but to look at restructuring this department,” the mayor said.
“They (union members) have shown a lack of cooperation at every level.”
Union President Terry Feazelle said they have tried to deal with the city, but the mayor will not listen.
“We try not to fight with them, but he always comes at us with a sledgehammer and beats us and backs us into a corner,” Feazelle said.
The mayor was responding to a recent decision by an arbitrator giving the union raises of 2.9 percent and 3 percent for 2008 and 2009.
The decision also awarded the union increases in clothing allowances from $450 to $600 for 2008 and from $600 to $750 for 2009.
The union has been working under the provisions of its old contract since that previous deal expired in 2008. The arbitrator’s decision addresses only the first two years in limbo.
Kasprzak says the department budget of about $5.54 million has gone out of control and that the city can no longer afford it. In a 34-minute speech at Thursday night’s meeting, he called for major changes in order to reduce costs.
Chief among them are getting rid of 24-hour shifts and eliminating the clause mandating a minimum staffing of 36 firefighters.
He also is seeking more in health-insurance co-payments.
“Twenty-four-hour shifts are not cost effective or affordable. Eight-hour shifts would dramatically improve firefighter safety and reduce department costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Kasprzak said.
“City firefighters work approximately 65 to 80 days per year, while all other city full-time employees are scheduled to work at least 240 days per year. The fire schedule allows city firemen to hold a second full-time job. No other city department has, nor should ever have, a manning clause, because personnel costs are by far the most costly item in any government budget.”
Feazelle said 24-hour shifts and minimum staffing were never brought up during negotiations.
“They never asked for that. These are just his talking points that he uses to incite the taxpayers.”
Kasprzak noted that the firefighters often compare their contract to the Police Department contract, citing 3.9 percent raises the police received in their latest settlement.
The Police Department has 48 employees, but there is no staffing requirement.
At the meeting, the mayor publicly offered firefighters the exact contract the police have if they want it.
“But they won’t agree to it because it would get rid of 24-hour shifts and the staffing clause,” the mayor said.
Feazelle said he and the negotiating team would bring that offer, and any other reasonable offer, to union membership for a vote if it were formally presented to them.
“If it was 12-hour shifts or eight-hour shifts, it wouldn’t matter. If the team felt it was fair, then we would put it forward for a vote,” he said.
Feazelle said the union has tried to be fair in its negotiations over the past five years, asking for raises that are no higher than the city’s other three unions received.
He said the union sought raises of 3 percent the first three years of the five-year period they have been without a new contract and 2.5 percent for the final two years.
“The police got 3.9 percent for four years, MLD (Municipal Lighting Department) got 3 percent, and that is what we were asking for,” Feazelle said.
The mayor said the police union got higher raises because its members agreed to pay more for health insurance and to allow drug and alcohol testing, which the fire union refused to do.
“The police got better raises because they gave up some things,” Kasprzak said. “The firefighters won’t give anything up.”
Feazelle said the city has not always negotiated in good faith.
“They always ask for things, but they never offer us anything,” he said.
He said the union would have agreed to alcohol and drug testing if the mayor and fire chief were required to do so, but they refused.
Kasprzak said that was never discussed with him.
“I don’t have anything to hide, but that was never brought to me,” he said.
Kasprzak said the city will pay the union the money that was awarded by the arbitrator by the end of the year but will continue to seriously look at how the department can be restructured.
“This decision will cost the taxpayers in excess of $700,000. It defies logic and will be a contributing factor in raising taxes in 2013 and beyond,” he said.
The mayor also said he suspects members of the union and their families will blast him with personal comments on social media, as they have done in the past.
“They can flex their Internet muscles all they want. That doesn’t bother me,” he said. “They are the most selfish group I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Feazelle said it was the mayor who wanted to go to arbitration.
“He’s the one who wanted to do this, and now he is complaining about the result.”
Feazelle said the arbitrator made that decision because he knows that the younger firefighters, who start out at a salary of about $27,000 per year, are struggling financially.
“We have some guys that qualify for food stamps.”
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