Firefighters angry over plan to hire part-timers

The Columbus Dispatch

NEWARK, Ohio — A city council committee meeting isn’t usually a raucous affair.

It’s where legislation sees its first light of day. Where it’s proposed and discussed. Then a decision is made on whether the proposal deserves full council consideration.

But Monday night’s Newark Safety Committee was different. A standing-room-only crowd of more than 50 heard the administration’s proposal, presented by Fire Chief Pat Connor and Newark Safety Director Bill Spurgeon, to allow the hiring of part-time firefighters to help battle the department’s manpower shortage. It’s a proposal that’s opposed by Newark’s firefighters union.

It was a classic political debate that split down party lines. Pro-union Democrats on the committee questioned the proposal by Newark’s Republican administration.

Ultimately, it ended anti-climatically, with the committee voting to table the issue for further consideration until at least in August.

But the issue was hot while it lasted, reaching a boiling point when Safety Committee Chairman Alex Rolletta, a Democrat, accused the city of failing to provide the fire force that was budgeted.

Spurgeon, a former deputy fire chief, reacted forcefully, saying he’d never heard such unabashed political stumping. He pressed Rolletta, who is serving his first term, asking how many fires he’d fought or how many nights he’d spent in a fire house.

“What expertise do you have to offer those opinions?” Spurgeon asked, prompting a spectator to shout, “He’s out of order! Sit down and shut up.”

The 2015 budget had authorized maintaining a fire department of 76 or 77 firefighters (both numbers were used during the discussion), though there currently are 71.

Minimum staffing requirements, mandating 19 firefighters be on duty for each of three shifts around the clock, was struck from the union contract in 2011. Now, some shifts are staffed with as few as 14 firefighters.

Consequently, the department has spent more than $200,000 in overtime.

International Association of Fire Fighters Local 109 President David McElfresh said that staffing the department at the budgeted level would add two employees per shift and help solve the problem.

Connor disagreed, saying that adding two firefighters per shift wouldn’t eliminate the need for overtime, though he said the salary required to pay those new full-time positions would eliminate the overtime budget.

“As fire chief, I’ve got to put people on the street,” Connor said. “Everybody would like to have a full, full-time force. But we don’t have money to do that, and there’s nowhere to go for a pot of gold. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a potential solution.”

After a debate that lasted hours, safety committee member Jeremy Blake voted to table the issue until Aug. 10.

“This is the first public hearing on this issue,” Blake said. “This is a beginning.”

The motion carried 3-2. “This was just a proposal to give the chief some authorization to put together a plan for instituting part-time firefighters,” said Newark Mayor Jeff Hall. He questioned the decision to table the proposal, explaining that it would take two readings before the full City Council could even vote on it.

“That’s at least a month to collect information and research the issue,” Hall said. “Especially when it’s just a concept and a potential fix. It might be different if we heard five other ideas. Four? Three? We didn’t.”

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