September 20, 2014

Elyria
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Grace says fire station may be shuttered

ELYRIA — Mayor Bill Grace said Wednesday that the city could close Fire Station No. 2 on Broad Street for good.

The closing — albeit controversial — makes sense, Grace said, because the difference in response times is negligible when an engine is dispatched from the downtown station or from the one on Broad Street.

The idea isn’t one that Grace had shared with Fire Chief John Zielinski.

“Closing Station No. 2 permanently is something the mayor needs to talk to me about,” Zielinski said.

Grace dropped minimum staffing levels from 17 to 14 on Aug. 27 to curb overtime — prompting firefighters to stage pickets at several locations.

When manpower drops below 17 on a given shift, the Broad Street station is closed. 

Firefighters only are called in for overtime if a shift falls below 14 available firefighters. Zielinski was equally upset about another of the mayor’s suggestions — that the minimum manpower permanently be set at 14.

“Seventeen isn’t enough,” Zielinski said. “We need five stations with 22 firefighters (minimum per shift), and he’s going in the other direction.”

Despite the mandate limiting overtime, firefighters accumulated $38,112 in overtime during the first two weeks of September, according to the auditor’s office.

It cost the city $1,236 to pay just one 24-hour overtime shift for a fire captain, including longevity and benefits, according to Chief Deputy Auditor John Ferrell.

If the overtime continues at its current rate for the department, the Fire Department is going to need an extra $200,000 to balance its budget this year, Ferrell said.

By Aug. 31, the fire department spent $485,867 of $600,263 in budgeted overtime, Ferrell said.

Last year, the city paid firefighters $871,338 in overtime or an average of $12,628 per firefighter, according to city records.

Grace said the Fire Department’s overtime issues are not the fault of the firefighters. They are related to the complexities of dealing with 24-hour shifts while working in vacations, sick time and floating holidays for those firefighters who work Christmas and other holidays.

The problem is worse in the summer because firefighters — like most others — aren’t eager to take vacation in the winter, Ferrell said.

“I know I haven’t used vacation time to shovel snow,” Ferrell said.

The 24-hour scheduling means that when a firefighter is sick, they generally are out for the whole 24 hours. That means paying overtime for 24 hours as compared to the eight hours that would be paid for other city employees, such as a police officer.

Grace also said it isn’t that firefighters are getting a perk with sick time — they get nine sick days a year; other city employees get 15.

Dean Marks, vice president of Firefighters Local 474, said military service is compounding the problem as four firefighters were called up for duty in the past several years.

For example, Robert Atkinson is serving in the Army Reserves. That means Atkinson’s shift already is down a man before any firefighters lost to vacation or sick time are factored in, Marks said.

The department allows five firefighters to book off on any given day — three for vacation, two for other time off as allowed by their union contract, Marks said.

Assistant Fire Chief John Dempsey said there are two 22-man shifts and one 21-man shift under Grace’s administration as compared to the three 24-man shifts under former Mayor Michael Keys.

Dempsey said Grace is asking the impossible of Zielinski.

“Here’s an analogy — if you have a $1,000 mortgage and you know it’s going to cost you $12,000 a year and you only set aside $9,000, what’s going to happen?” Dempsey asked.

Grace said the city will attack the overtime problem by hiring three to four firefighters next year.

Dempsey, meanwhile, questioned why the city hired four new police officers in recent weeks given that the staffing problems are the most urgent in the Fire Department.

He said he hopes that the city hires an outside consultant to look at the Fire Department with a fresh eye, which Grace did not rule out.

Grace said the 2015 planning process is studying manpower issues and the administration examined a similar review of manpower powers in the Westlake Fire Department.

“While staff levels aren’t what we’d like, everybody is down with revenues that aren’t keeping up with expenses,” Grace said. “The fact (firefighters) work a 24-hour shift makes it very complicated.”

Meanwhile, the city has applied for a federal Safer grant to hire 10 firefighters, but Grace has not committed himself to accepting the grant if it is awarded because the city would have to come up with $2.4 million to pay its portion. The federal government would kick in about $1.05 million.

Contact Cindy Leise at 653-6250 or cleise@chroniclet.com.