By JOE LoTEMPLIO and DAN HEATH, Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — As municipalities across the state continue to struggle with fiscal challenges, department budgets are getting more and more scrutiny.
Plattsburgh, the only city in Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties, has two paid, uniformed public-safety departments — police and fire — and they account for a combined $13 million of the city’s $53 million budget.
Amid suggestions for changes to those departments, the Press-Republican looked in depth at their budgets and setup and how they compare to those in similar New York communities.
MINIMUM OF 36
The Plattsburgh City Fire Department has an all-paid, full-time staff of firefighters who also work as emergency medical technicians. The contract requires the city have a minimum of 36 firefighters on staff.
At present, there are 37 members, including 36 firefighters and Assistant Chief Randy Stone, who is overseeing the department in the absence of a fire chief.
They work 24-hour shifts in four platoons of nine firefighters each, with three days off in between.
If they work two 24-hour shifts for a total of 48 hours in one pay period, they are credited eight hours of leave time in what is known nationally as a “Kelly Day,” in honor of a former New York City firefighter.
Those with 15 or more years of service — there are 12 of them — do not have EMT duty.
If a major fire breaks out, no volunteers from outside the city can be called in until all off-duty paid firefighters are summoned first.
The department covers an area of 6.6 square miles with a population of 19,949.
The City Fire Department’s 2012 budget shows a total cost of $5,339,304. That figure includes salaries, overtime pay, services, supplies, health care, retirement pension, workers’ compensation and disability pay.
The lowest-paid firefighter makes $30,239, while the highest-paid gets $64,056.
As with the cost of just about all government services, the price tag for running the Fire Department has grown over the years.
In 2002, the total budget was $3,345,771, almost $1.2 million less than now. But, the city had 48 full-time firefighters and two part-timers in 2002, about 10 more than now.
The lowest-paid firefighter made $24,440 10 years ago, and the highest-paid earned $52,772.
The Fire Department actually contributes to city coffers, bringing in revenue through its ambulance service.
In 2012, the department showed receipts of $423,643, although the year-end figures were not yet complete, according to City Chamberlain Richard Marks.
The department receives money from Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance companies for ambulance transports. Marks said the yearly amount depends on what the insurance companies will pay.
“If a transport costs $900, we might only get half of that,” he said.
The City of Oswego on Lake Ontario has 66 full-time firefighters — 29 more than Plattsburgh — for a city that’s slightly smaller at 18,158 people. They run four platoons of 16 firefighters each.
The department just switched Jan. 1 from 10- and 14-hour shifts to 24-hour shifts, the same as used by Plattsburgh.
“It’s a different animal, but we are going through it pretty open-minded,” Fire Chief Jeff McCrobie said.
There is no minimum-staffing clause in the union contract.
They use volunteers only when all paid firefighters have been called in first, the same as Plattsburgh.
The budget for the Oswego Fire Department this year is $4,965,673, which is about $373,600 less than Plattsburgh’s despite having more firefighters.
The lowest-paid firefighter makes $36,748 (higher than Plattsburgh), and the top figure is $51,927 (lower than Plattsburgh).
McCrobie says he anticipates the department will bring in about $1.4 million in revenue for 2013 from its ambulance service, which helps keep their overall budget down.
One reason it takes in almost a million more than Plattsburgh is that Oswego has six ambulances, although usually two to four are operating on a given day.
Plattsburgh operates one ambulance daily.
In Ogdensburg, the Fire Department has 29 paid firefighters covering a smaller city of 11,128 people.
Outgoing Chief Steve Badlam said the department runs platoons of seven per shift on 10- and 14-hour shifts, with one 24-hour shift per month.
Starting firefighters there earn $26,782, and the highest paid gets $49,855, both lower than in Plattsburgh.
As far as revenue, the department brings in about $10,000 per year from fire inspections at local businesses.
The crews do respond to emergencies with EMTs, but the local volunteer ambulance company does the transports, so the Fire Department gets no revenue.
The budget for the Ogdensburg Fire Department is about $2.8 million, the largest in that city.
“They (City Council) look at us all the time,” Badlam said.
The Oneonta Fire Department covers the city, population 13,843 in 2011, and also the Town of Oneonta, except for West Oneonta.
It provides ambulance coverage to the entire city and town, a total of 26 square miles.
The department’s budget was slightly more than $3 million in 2012.
Oneonta has 28 paid firefighters, including the chief, assistant chief and four captains.
Firefighter salaries range from $32,557 (a little higher than Plattsburgh) to $54,908 for the highest-paid captain (lower than Plattsburgh’stopsalary).
Crews work 24-hour shifts, followed by three days off. Twelve part-time firefighters serve in an on-call capacity.
That mix of full- and part-time employees has been in place for 30 years, Fire Chief Patrick Pidgeon said.
“It works well for us,” he said.
Since Donald Kasprzak became mayor in 2007, he and the Common Council have worked to lower costs in the City Fire Department.
Staffing levels have been reduced to near the minimum of 36. The council has also sought different health-insurance plans to save money and has moved some training to in-house.
It’s not much of a secret that Kasprzak is not a big fan of the Plattsburgh Permanent Firefighters Association’s contract, which he views as too worker-friendly.
“They have the most generous contract in the state, and it has never been adjusted to become more affordable and efficient,” the mayor said.
“During difficult times, we need to adjust every department, and the Fire Department should not be the only department that continues in its present form. It is not an affordable or sustainable department as it is structured.”
He wants to eliminate the minimum-staffing clause and 24-hour shifts and would like to see the city be allowed to use volunteer firefighters.
Kasprzak wants to explore the idea of implementing eight-hour shifts, which he thinks would be more affordable and safer.
“We would save hundreds of thousands of dollars if they come to work five days a week, like everybody else in the city. And it would be much safer to have a completely awake, around-the-clock shift on duty.
“It is simply not affordable to pay people to sleep in any department,” he said, in reference to a union contract that allows working firefighters to sleep from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as long as there are no calls.
OPEN TO SOME CHANGES
Terry Feazelle, president of the firefighters union, says it is willing to work with the city on 24-hour shifts and even implementing volunteers.
But there is no way the union would give up the minimum-staffing clause.
“When pigs fly,” Feazelle said.
The department feels staffing levels are already dangerously low, he said, and he does not want to see any firefighters laid off.
Feazelle vigorously defends his members, saying they are among the best-trained, hardest-working emergency-service workers in the state — and that they do it all with constant budget cuts and threats hanging over their heads.
The mayor has offered the Fire Department union the same contract the Police Department has, which does not include a minimum-staffing clause, but Feazelle said that won’t work.
“We would have to re-write the whole thing because they have sergeants and corporals, and we don’t,” he said. “And we would never do anything that would lead to layoffs. We would never give anybody’s job away.”
Feazelle maintains that while the overall department budget has risen over the past 10 years, the operating portion — mostly salaries — has not.
Besides salaries, the operating budget also includes overtime pay ($240,000 for 2012), and services and supplies ($279,751) such as fuel for trucks and maintenance.
“Our operating budget is about the same as it was almost 20 years ago,” Feazelle said. “Sure, health insurance has gone up, but it’s gone up for every department, not just ours.”
Budget numbers bear out Feazelle’s case: According to Open Book New York, the Fire Department’s operating budget was $2,654,150 in 1999 and $2,543,741 in 2011.
The 2012 operating budget was $2,950,074, according to figures from Marks. Feazelle said the 2012 budget grew by about $500,000 in retroactive pay that the department received when an arbitrator awarded raises for 2008 and 2009.
The department’s non-operating budget for 2012 was $2,389,230, which includes health care, retirement, payroll matching (FICA), workers’ compensation and disability coverage.
Feazelle said the city could solve some of the financial concerns by taking in more revenue.
He noted that the Fire Department loses about 500 ambulance calls per year to CVPH Medical Center because its ambulance is already tied up with calls when another comes in.
Feazelle said the city already has two ambulances that are not being used and enough personnel to run another rig.
The city could also make money by contracting for ambulance service with nearby towns or by doing non-emergency transports, he added.
“We have the people and the vehicles, so why not do it?”
But Kasprzak feels the city would have to hire more people to run another ambulance, and he said that will not happen.
Feazelle said the department is so understaffed that, to meet national standards, it would need platoons of 15 firefighters per shift to operate all the equipment it has.
The standards call for four firefighters on the department’s two pumper trucks and aerial ladder truck, two on the ambulance and one incident commander.
With platoons of nine, sometimes the number drops to just six if a firefighter is off for vacation, a Kelly Day or out sick.
“We’re not asking for 15; we know that is not economically feasible,” Feazelle said.
“But sometimes we only have six people, and that’s not safe for the staff or the public.”
Email Joe LoTemplio at: firstname.lastname@example.org
THE COST OF SAFETY
This is the first of five articles looking at the budgets of the Plattsburgh City Fire and Police departments and proposals for change.
Tomorrow: A closer look at Fire Department shifts and staffing.
BY THE NUMBERS
Here's a look at the budgets from the fire departments reviewed by the Press-Republican:
PLATTSBURGH FIRE DEPARTMENT
Lowest- and highest-paid members:
OGDENSBURG FIRE DEPARTMENT
Overall 2012 budget: $2.8 million
Staff levels: 29 full-time
Lowest- and highest-paid members: $26,782 and $49,855.
Revenue produced: $10,000 (department does not provide EMS transport service).
ONEONTA FIRE DEPARTMENT
Overall budget: $3 million
Staff levels: 28 full-time
Lowest- and highest-paid members: $32,551 and $54,908.
Revenue produced: N/A
OSWEGO FIRE DEPARTMENT
Overall budget: $4.96 million
Staff level: 66 full-time
Lowest and highest-paid members: $36,748 and $51,927.
Revenue produced: $1.4 million