Deal on Fire Staffing;
Seeking better relations, mayor agrees to fewer cuts

Copyright 2003 Newsday, Inc.
Newsday (New York)
June 4, 2003 Wednesday QUEENS EDITION

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has scrapped plans to cut staffing at 29 city fire companies in an attempt to make peace with the firefighters union and derail opposition to his closing of six city firehouses.
The deal came on the eve of a ceremony honoring the Fire Department's bravest officers - and just hours after a furious Bloomberg defended himself against critics who said he's sacrificed fire safety for savings.

"We have an agreement that we think will help keep the city and help keep our firefighters safe," said Bloomberg at City Hall yesterday, flanked by leaders of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

"This is something I hope is a precursor of better relations with a lot of the municipal workforce," he added.
City Hall officials said the agreement was also intended to block council members bent on blocking a budget deal if Bloomberg doesn't restore firehouse funding.

Bloomberg had planned to cut staffing at 52 engine companies from five firefighters a shift to four, saving the city an estimated $13 million a year.

Under yesterday's deal, the mayor agreed to pare the number of affected companies to 23, costing the city about half of the anticipated savings. Four-person shifts are already the norm at 143 engine companies.

In exchange, the union agreed to reduce the number of firefighters on sick leave, which has driven up overtime costs. The percentage of firefighters on sick leave has increased from 6.4 percent before the Sept. 11 terror attack to 8.6 percent now.

The union also pledged to drop seven lawsuits over staffing, administrative procedure and the closings.

"This was as good a deal as we could get," said UFA president Steven Cassidy, a frequent Bloomberg critic. "And we didn't give anything up to get it."

The city will decide over the next few days which companies are to face the staff cuts, based on neighborhood needs and response times, department officials said.

Bloomberg can also institute four-member crews at the spared companies if the union doesn't meet sick-leave targets, Bloomberg spokesman Ed Skyler said.

The mayor will preside at the Fire Department's annual Medal Day at 11 a.m. today, where he will decorate 40 firefighters for bravery. The event, expected to draw a crowd of about 1,500, has its political perils. In 1989, Ed Koch was nearly booed off the stage for closing two firehouses.

"The agreement helps," said a city official who requested anonymity. "But we're probably going to get booed anyway."

Earlier in the day, Bloomberg donned bunker gear - and an uncharacteristically combative attitude - during a tour of a new $45-million Fire Department training complex on Randalls Island.

When a reporter asked if the department's money would have been better spent saving firehouses, the mayor shouted, "We will not skimp on training, we will not skimp on equipment, we will do nothing that jeopardizes their live's.