Supporters of plan to hire firefighters vote against measure to do so in Ogdensburg
BY JIMMY LAWTON
North Country This Week
OGDENSBURG – Politics ruled the night in Ogdensburg as supporters of hiring four additional firefighters voted down a resolution from the floor that called for just that.
The vote came at the end of a lengthy meeting that included interruptions, accusations, insults and even legal threats.The move to vote against a measure they supported was strategic and complicated.
The big topic of the night was once again the Ogdensburg City Fire Department’s cost and staffing levels.
A presentation given by Comptroller Angela Gray provided cost projections for various staffing levels. The full report can be found on the city’s website.
The 10-year projects were made using the assumption that the city’s existing contract with the fire union won’t change, which is an unlikely prospect.
However, a line is also drawn after the year 2025 to point out that aspect.
The salary analysis through 2025 is likely far more accurate than the rest of the chart in terms of predicting real numbers.
That’s simply because predictions on future contracts are essentially impossible to make.
The presentation includes the current 17-firefighter model, a 21-firefighter model and two 25-firefighter models, with one assuming the city obtains a grant to pay for positions and the other without.
Missing from the chart is a 21-firefighter model with a grant factored in.
The 17 and 21 models both assume that in 2032 the salary cost, without changes to the existing contract, would be roughly $5.7 million annually.
In 10 years, both of the 25-firefighter models show the cost at $6 million.
In the short–term, however, things are quite different.
The 21-firefighter model would be about $278,000 cheaper in 2024 than the 17-firefighter model and about $193,000 less in 2025.
The 25-member model without a state grant to subsidize new hires would save the city as much as $469,000 in 2024 and $129,000 in 2025.
With the grant, the savings in 2024 would be the same, as the city would not be able to reimburse until year 2025, but in 2025 the savings would be $363,000.
It may seem counterintuitive that adding firefighters saves money and in the long term, the models show that’s not exactly true.
However, as long as the existing contract remains in place, all models show that the most expensive staffing level of the four models is the current level of 17 firefighters.
That’s because the city has been violating the terms of the existing union contract, which is costing a lot of money.
Key provisions in that contract require four shifts with five employees on a shift. Because there are only 16 members and a chief, the “fifth” person on each shift is receiving overtime pay.
The estimated expense stemming from that is about $455,520 per year.
Additionally, the contract requires the city to pay an extra $3 per hour to each shift member when assigned members work with fewer than six freighters.
That annual estimated cost is $199,680.
What this means is that the average base salary for a firefighter in Ogdensburg is $67,580, but due to the contract clauses and overtime, the actual amount paid out on average is $123,745 annually.
For some councilors the upfront savings gained from hiring four or even eight firefighters is a “no brainer.” Councilors Dan Skamperle, Nichole Kennedy and Michael Powers have been pushing to hire more firefighters since similar numbers were brought to their attention months ago.
However, Mayor Jeffrey M. Skelly has repeatedly argued that the city will see long term savings by keeping staffing levels lower and says if the city adds firefighters, they would need to be cut once the contract expires.
On Monday, Councilor John Rishe brought a resolution to the floor to hire four firefighters. However, since it was not on the agenda five affirmative votes were required in order for it to pass.
Furthermore, only councilors who vote against the resolution are able to bring it up again.
Ironically the only person voting in favor of hiring four firefighters Monday was Bill Dillabough, though he is unlikely to do so again should it come forward in a formal resolution on March 27.
Councilor Kennedy urged her fellow councilors to vote against the measure so that it could pass with four votes.
Although Rishe was accused of bringing it up so that it would fail due to lack of votes, he insisted he was not playing games.
Should the resolution come forward Monday, it appears Rishe will likely cast the deciding vote on the staffing levels for the city fire department.