Lana Bellamy October 19, 2019 The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y.
The Newburgh Fire Department could lose between 11 to 13 firefighters and drop staffing for each apparatus to dangerously low levels below industry standards.
CITY OF NEWBURGH, NY—Matt Gayton has been back to work at the Newburgh Fire Department for 10 months. In 10 weeks, there is a strong possibility he may be forced to leave again, as potential layoffs loom while the City of Newburgh toils over its 2020 budget.
Gayton said his career with the NFD has been stop-and-go pretty much since he started. He was one of five laid off in 2018 after 22 months on the job because of city budgeting issues and the exhaustion of the city’s second Federal Emergency Management SAFER grant.
All five of the firefighters were rehired in January thanks to a third SAFER grant that also provided for firefighter Chris Baum to return after transferring to the Arlington Fire Department in order to save a job. The $1.5 million grant was meant to fund nine positions over the next three years as long as the city stayed above a minimum staffing level and could provide money to match the grant over time.
City Manager Joe Donat approached Brendan Hogan, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 589, a few days before his planned draft budget presentation on Tuesday.
“He was visibly upset,” Hogan said. “I don’t think he’s some heartless monster.”
It was then that Donat and Hogan started talking about the number of possible cuts and the likelihood of having to return money from the SAFER grant. Gayton was at NFD headquarters on Grand Street on Oct. 12 when Hogan informed them layoffs could be coming.
“You got to be kidding me,” was his first thought, Gayton said Friday during an interview at the firehouse. “Here we go again.” He figured layoffs would be possible in three years when the current SAFER grant expires. He just thought he had more time.
“Last time we got laid off, we knew it was coming,” Gayton said. “This time, it was just a total… you know, I wasn’t prepared.”
Despite the uncertainty, Gayton still wants to work for the NFD because he loves helping the people in the city where he grew up and continues to live.
“It’s a beautiful city,” he said.
While nothing is set in stone, Donat publicly presented his budget plan Tuesday that called for about a 2 percent cut in fire personnel, which equates to about 11 to 13 firefighters. Personnel cuts to police and a hiring freeze among other city departments was also suggested as part of a solution to balance next year’s budget.
The budget discussions remind Hogan of 2009, when the city proposed cutting 12 to 15 firefighters. That year, Hogan said, the union made “serious concessions” in their contracts, including salary freezes that lasted years, cutting 5 percent from every salary and working overtime as straight-time, in order to save about $2 million.
“We set ourselves back years and years and years, but it was necessary because if they had laid off the 12 to 15 of us back then, that would have been down in the 30s for the number of people working here,” Hogan said, noting about 40 firefighters are needed to fill a shift.
Now, the department faces going back to staffing three people for each apparatus, which is dangerously low staffing levels and beneath industry standards, but something NFD is used to. Hogan said he believes past city management has been dishonest about the state of the city’s finances, and that it is “very likely” Donat is telling the truth.
“It’s the first time in a really long time that somebody has looked at everyone and gone, ‘It’s bad, and we need to do something,'” Hogan said.
At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, City Council members appeared shocked to hear about the potential need for layoffs.
“If they did not know (about the financial situation), then they are irresponsible, dangerous and incompetent, if they did not know,” Hogan said. “One of the two. They’re either those three things or they’re lying… That council micromanages, no matter who the city manager is.”
The council vowed to work over the next weeks to save all the jobs and refrain from increasing taxes. Hogan wonders if they were just telling people what they wanted to hear.
“I’ll work with them to try to save everybody. But be honest,” Hogan said.
©2019 The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y.