City firefighters union files protest

Watertown Fire Department on South Massey Street. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — The City Council on Monday night decided to pass on a federal grant that would have paid for the salaries of four new firefighters and saved the city about $1.2 million in overtime during the next three years.

The proposal failed by a 2-2 vote, with Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith and Councilwoman Sarah V. Compo voting against it, while Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero and Councilman Ryan Henry-Wilkinson voted in favor of it.

It needed three votes to pass. The council’s fifth council seat is vacant because of the recent resignation of former Councilman Jesse C.P. Roshia

City Manager Kenneth A. Mix brought up federal Staffing for an Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — or SAFER — grant to the attention of council members Monday night because it’s the first time it would pay 100% of salaries and benefits for the firefighters over the three years of the grant.

“I think it’s a real game changer,” he said.

The SAFER grant, which is distributed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, frontline firefighters available in their communities.

The city’s Comptroller Office determined the city could save $100,000 per year for each of the four firefighters. The city would have saved about $1.2 million in overtime expenses in three years, Mr. Mix said.

Mayor Smith and Councilwoman Compo expressed concerns about increasing the number of staffing by adding the four firefighters. The city fire department now has 67 firefighters.

“I have reservations being locked into staffing levels,” Councilwoman Compo said, adding that the city will lose millions of dollars when it loses a hydroelectric contract with National Grid in 2029.

The mayor said he’s worried about cutting positions at the end of the grant as the amount of funding departments receive is reduced year over year so departments don’t abruptly lose funding. Fire departments are welcome to apply again once its funding runs out.

“It’s not easy to cut jobs and people,” he said, adding that council eliminated several jobs because of the financial instability caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic during budget time last spring.

But Fire Chief Matthew Timerman said cutting firefighter positions from the grant would likely be avoided through attrition — when employees leave the department and their positions are not filled — and 29 firefighters will be eligible for retirement in three years.

Mayor Smith compared the situation with a recent Super Bowl commercial with comic actor Tracy Morgan showing the consequences between “certain” and “pretty sure” with a family in the ad considering to buy a house through a mortgage company.

Mayor Smith said the fire chief couldn’t be “certain” that firefighters would be retiring then, only that he was “pretty sure.”

But council members Ruggiero and Henry-Wilkinson said it made sense to apply for the grant. Councilwoman Ruggiero stressed the city could decide later not to accept the grant if it was awarded. The firefighters hired through the grant would be aware the jobs could go away after the grant was over in three years, the councilman said.

Daniel Daugherty, president of Watertown Professional Firefighters Association, Local 191, said Tuesday it was a no brainer to apply for the grant. The city manager and fire chief supported the application. All the salaries and health benefits would have been paid, he stressed.

“This was a bad move,” he said of passing on the grant money.

Not going after “free money” shows that some council members “have an agenda” rather than worrying about financial issues with the fire department, he said.

In 2019, the city successfully applied for a SAFER grant and hired four firefighters.

The grant paid 75% of their salaries and health benefits for the first two years of the three-year SAFER grant and 35% in the third year.

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(1) comment


What agenda is being alluded to? A long term plan to get out of the unionized fire department entirely?

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