OSWEGO, NY – “For our department, it’s devastating,” Fire Chief Jeff McCrobie told Oswego County Today Monday night after the mayor unveiled his tentative 2017 city budget.
Mayor William Barlow’s proposed spending plan not only includes a tax hike, it also slices more than a quarter of the fire department in order to make ends meet for the city next year. There is no water or sewer fee increase, the mayor pointed out.
According to the mayor, emergency services won’t suffer from the proposed reductions.
“We’ve developed a plan that keeps the same amount of services – ambulance service, water rescues and fire protection,” he said.
“Mayor Barlow and I have been discussing this, at length, for probably 10 or 12 days now,” the chief said. “We’ll have to try to provide the services we’re currently providing with 27 percent less personnel. It’s a service we’re proud of and will continue to do even though we’ve faced cutbacks from other administrations.”
It will be difficult to do, he admits.
“My command staff and I have already begun trying to figure out how to go about doing this for the safety of the residents and safety of the firefighters. It’s going to be hard. We’re going to try our best,” McCrobie said.
He and the mayor have worked on this for quite some time.
The department had one retirement recently. That leaves 15 families that right now are his major concern, the chief said.
“We want to help them through this most difficult time for them. They are young people, young families, obviously we know them. A 58 or 59 person department … we called them and talked about this. We’re not just talking to a number, it’s a person, a neighbor,” McCrobie said.
The chief and the mayor are trying to work through part-time opportunities for the firefighters impacted.
“It’s a terrible situation. (The mayor and I) are doing everything we can to make it good,” the chief said.
Rank and file firefighters we made aware of the situation earlier on Monday in a discussion with the chief and mayor. They informed those who are affected.
“I wanted to be the one who told them; they’re my people. It’s been very respectful. The union’s done everything it can. The mayor, myself, some of our senior leadership has met. We all understand the plight the city is in,” McCrobie said.
The decision was made strictly on seniority, the chief said, adding that any retirements that happen mean the more off the top that leaves means the less off the bottom have to go.
The staffing would be from 59, take away the 16, that leaves 43 with a “float position” and two administrators (the chief and assistant chief), McCrobie said.
“So that leaves 10 per shift,” he added. “We’ll have to do with what we have. There are a lot of factors involved. We’ve discussed it. Nothing is set in stone yet.”
People aren’t going to vote for an increase in their taxes, probably no matter whose job is on the line, unless it’s their own, he said.
“It’s been honest, truthful talks among adults. And none of us like it. None of us like it at all,” the chief said. “But we’re going to progress as a group here, the department, the mayor and now the council’s involved. We’re going to make the best of this. We don’t want to be here, but this is what we’re facing. I’m sure that we’re in for more discussion in the coming weeks.”
“What scares me is there hasn’t been any discussions, that I’m aware of, as to how do you make it work,” John Geraci, union president, said. “The biggest thing that hits me is last weekend we had two working house fires in the same weekend. Those guys pulled up on Sunday morning of Harborfest with 10 guys working and they managed to rescue a guy and two kids hanging out of a second story window and two dogs as well. They were short-handed doing it. How are we going to provide that same level of service when you cut more than a quarter of the department?”
As firefighters, “we’re going to rise to the occasion and do our jobs no matter what,” he added.
The emotional side of the matter is suddenly now you have 16 guys that have been told they don’t have a job Jan. 1, he said.
There is nothing he’s not willing to talk about in order to save the jobs, Geraci told Oswego County Today.
“Let’s arrive at a point where we don’t have to send people home. The city has a lot invested in these guys. They sent them all to the fire academy, they’re all trained. Let’s find a way to solve this; I am 100 percent committed to working with the mayor, the council,” he said.
The firefighters are coming to the end of a five-year contract.
They took zero, zero, zero, two and two – “a four percent raise over five years,” Geraci pointed out. “There is nothing that’s off the table when it comes to finding a way to save these jobs. I understand the spot (the city’s) in. I think they’ve been doing a great job, this council and administration with what the city needs. So let’s show that when it comes to a hard budget we can work together. This city has some positive momentum, let’s use that to show that the city and the union can sit down and find a way that keeps guys from cleaning out their lockers and putting their houses on the market.”
Check back later for more details regarding the mayor’s budget proposal.