March 3, 2013

Editorial: Assessing costs


---- — A Press-Republican series looking at costs for the City of Plattsburgh Police and Fire departments shows that some adjustments could save money.

City firefighters and police officers are deservedly respected in this community. We have observed over the years that members of both departments are professional, well-trained and service-oriented.

But these are challenging times for taxpayers, and even the most accomplished departments have to be assessed for potential savings. So we make these observations:

Firefighter shifts: The city should negotiate a change from 24-hour shifts to 10 or 12 hours. City firefighters say that if a proposal is brought to them, they are willing to negotiate a shift change; they must do that for the sake of the people who pay them.

However, the eight-hour shifts suggested by Mayor Donald Kasprzak won’t work. They aren’t used by any other paid department in New York state, with good reason. The job is different from others in that workers can’t plan tasks to end at an appointed time. The ambulance or fire trucks can be called out 10 minutes before a shift ends, and the responders can’t leave the emergency site just because their work day is officially done. That means overtime.

But 10- or 12-hour shifts would stave off some of the overtime and also end the wasteful practice of firefighters being paid to sleep on the night shift. They should be awake and working on duties or projects for the city their whole shift.

Fire Department staffing: City officials have reduced Fire Department personnel from 48 in 2002 to 37 now and want to eliminate the clause requiring a minimum of 36. Oswego has a whopping 66 firefighters; Ogdensburg, 29; and Oneonta, 28.

But 36 firefighters may be as low as it’s practically possible to go, because the city must be careful not to compromise safety and also because the union appears dead-set against budging on any layoffs.

Augmenting the force with volunteers is a possibility but can’t be used to justify reducing staff. Response time is crucial in any fire but especially in a city, where homes and businesses are nestled closely together. Volunteers can’t possibly respond as quickly in all circumstances as paid personnel who are waiting to rush out.

Furthermore, finding volunteers has been an issue regionally for years. Every volunteer department in the North Country has had trouble recruiting and maintaining members as the time and expense for training have increased.

City Police Department: Kasprzak has focused all his attention on the Fire Department in a seven-year war of words with its union. In the meantime, the City Police budget has grown 46 percent from $3,744,780 in 2002 to $6,860,782 last year while staffing has stayed about the same. Overtime costs, staffing, salaries and benefits should be assessed to ensure taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

City officials certainly must look closely at expenses and revenue options in both departments. But we also caution that public safety should outrank money as the priority when it comes to these essential city operations.