City and fire union leaders hope an 11th hour deal can be hammered out to avoid laying off 11 firefighters less than two weeks from now.
A potential deal between the parties could involve incorporating part-time firefighters into the Middletown Division of Fire, which at present is totally full-time, union officials said. Meanwhile, city officials have refused to talk publicly about specific details of any potential compromise or agreement.
City Manager Doug Adkins made only a brief mention of the negotiations at City Council’s retreat last week at Atrium Medical Center.
“We have moved some brand new concepts on the floor and everybody, so far, has embraced them,” Adkins said.
Both sides have until 7 p.m. Aug. 16 to work out a deal that avoids layoffs.
City and union officials met Thursday morning to continue talk of a compromise. Adkins characterized the meeting as “productive” and stated another meeting is scheduled for Monday. He said he could “bring something to the executive session for (council) to discuss” as early as Tuesday’s council meeting.
“Both sides are working very hard to reach an acceptable agreement to avoid layoffs,” the city manager said. “There is a strong potential that we can avoid layoffs without adding to our budget, which I think is good if we can work things out.”
City officials are looking at fire department reductions to help fill gaps in the 2014 budget. Laying off 11 firefighters would save the city $920,514, according to Michelle Greis, city finance director. City officials could not make reductions to the fire department at the beginning of 2014 due to restrictions on grants the city received to pay for some fire staff positions.
The city is also weighing whether to close Station 84 on Tytus Avenue as another cost-cutting measure.
City officials had previously maintained that the fire union was unwilling to talk about concessions, which led to layoff notices being sent to 11 firefighters. Adkins said the fire union is “being incredibly reasonable” in this latest round of discussions.
“They have brought cuts in places we didn’t think they’d ever go,” he said.
But Greg Justice, a fire captain and president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 336, said it shouldn’t have taken this long or layoff notices for progress on negotiations to improve.
“For the citizens of this community that depend on our services, and for the firefighters that provide those services to them, it’s just unfortunate that it’s come to the 11th hour, and the firefighters, quite frankly, have been surprised by it,” Justice said. “It’s hard to pick up your firefighting gear and go somewhere else and start over.”
Middletown officials said last week the potential cuts do not make the city “unsafe,” but residents and Justice believe otherwise.
The layoffs were announced by the IAFF Local 336 on July 25. The notice stated that 15 firefighter positions will be eliminated — as well as the closure of Station 84 that services the northern neighborhoods of Middletown — by Aug. 16. Closing the station, laying off 11 firefighters and eliminating four other firefighter positions through attrition, could save about $1 million in the city’s budget.
It costs roughly $100,000 to employ and equip a firefighter, which four of those positions are funded via a federal staffing grant, and seven are funded by the general fund, according to fire Chief Steve Botts. Closing station 84, but keeping the utilities on while it’s unmanned, will save the city around $20,000, he said, and the savings is likely to double if the city mothballs the 1954-built station that is in need of significant repairs, such as its roof.
The union presented a plan that would call for no new costs and avoid layoffs, but the city didn’t accept that deal, Justice said. He said “there is a glimmer of hope” that if the union accepts a city proposal incorporating part-time firefighters through attrition that the 11 firefighters set to be laid off won’t be given pink slips in order to make room in the city budget.
The city of Middletown has cut, added and cut again from the front-line firefighting force over the past several years.
In 2010, there were 80 full-time staff in the Middletown Division of Fire, including 60 firefighters, according to the department’s budget. Two years later, the department, due to City Council budget cuts, staffed 51 firefighters while the officer-level staffing remained steady at 20. Six firefighters were added in 2013 thanks to a federal staffing grant, but that grant expires on Aug. 6.
The potential of firefighter cuts and the loss of a fire station has many residents in the city’s northern neighborhoods worried. Fire Station 84 is at the corner of Tytus Avenue and Jackson Street. It houses a fire truck and a reserve medic unit and is staffed by three personnel. There is also a three-story training facility in the back of the station.
“It is a concern because I live right around the corner (from the station),” said Heather Huf, who lives on Manchester Road near Maple Park. “It’s very scary if there were to be a fire or any kind of an emergency. It’s a big concern for the city.”
Brittnanny Fultz has lived on Webber Avenue since 2006 and is equally worried.
“My mom recently passed and there were a lot of times that if there hadn’t been a firehouse close, that the medics wouldn’t have gotten here as fast as they did,” she said. “It’s just going to put more pressure on them to get to who’s hurt the worst. It’s a matter of life and death.”
But Fultz has “faith that the economy will pick back up.”
Ben Highley, who lives a couple houses down from Fultz, said there’s seemingly “a broad lack of support” for the fire and police service.
“The lack of social services like this always serve to make us less safe,” he said. “I’m not happy about it. Those are the guys we’re telling our kids, ‘You want to grow up to be a hero, be a fireman, be a police officer so you an get laid off after 10 or 20 years on the force.’”
Riverview resident Jeffery Chandler called the cuts “a shame.”
“It concerns me a great deal,” he said. “At the council meetings, they have talked about it over and over and over, but there’s not been a way to get around the budget crisis of not having enough money to keep them all open.”
But loosing the neighborhood firehouse shouldn’t happen.
“This covers a great deal of area in this part of town. I just can’t see closing it … I just can’t agree with that,” Chandler said.