Pa. city officials in no rush to replace retiring firefighters, fill empty positions

Retirements by the end of this year will put the city’s fire department down by 16 men, with no plan to fill the vacancies


The Times Leader

WILKES BARRE, Pa. — Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tony George is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Although he has managed to balance the budget for 2019, with no tax increase, the city continues to struggle financially.

Retirements by the end of this year will put the city’s fire department down by 16 men. (Photo/Max Pixel)
Retirements by the end of this year will put the city’s fire department down by 16 men. (Photo/Max Pixel)

His efforts earlier this year to obtain distressed status under the state’s Act 47 were rebuffed, blocking the city from resorting to such remedies as tripling the emergency services tax to $156 a year, attempting to impose a commuter tax and potential access to a $3 million loan that was interest-free for 10 years.

With the Act 47 request opposed by the city’s Harrisburg delegation, George heard back from the state Department of Community and Economic Development that the city needed to exhaust all other options first, including continuation of an Early Intervention Program that calls for creation of a “Comprehensive Economic Development Strategic 5 Year Plan.”

Great, but the city has to keep running in the meanwhile.

It is not Mayor George’s fault that the cost of providing essential services, especially police and fire protection, continues to prove a challenge for a cash-strapped city that is desperately seeking solutions to problems faced by municipalities across Pennsylvania.

Retirements by the end of this year will put the city’s fire department down by 16 men. It would be a stretch to blame him for that — though labor-administration relations are not warm at the moment — but how George is dealing with those challenging realities does raise some questions.

His 2019 budget includes 63 firefighters (and no pay increase for them). The firefighters’ union counts 54 with the vacancies and two out with injuries.

Aside from that discrepancy between the two sides, George also says he’s in no rush to replace the retiring men, taking a wait-and-see approach for the outcome of next year’s binding arbitration on a new contract before making a decision on filling the spots.

“I’m not going to hire anybody until I see what they get,” George told reporter Jerry Lynott.

With staffing already down and overtime significantly up, we have to agree with Fire Department Capt. Mike Bilski, the union president, who says that without replacements overtime is “going to perpetuate” and that the loss of experienced firefighters is a problem.

Anticipating high overtime costs next year, the 2019 budget allocates $150,000, or triple what was budgeted this year.

Actual experience this year makes even that number seem optimistic. Through the end of November, the city paid $185,643 in overtime to firefighters, according to a draft of the monthly financial report.

How would a reasonable person expect to rack up $35,000 less overtime in 2019 when the city will be going into the new year with fewer firefighters and no immediate plan to add any?

George says there are 11 men “working just about all the time.”

To meet that minimum staffing level for the four daily shifts and prevent vehicles from being “browned out,” firefighters have been working overtime.

George also says it costs the city $145,000 per year for a firefighter, which includes wages, benefits, and pension contributions.

We are heading into a mayoral election year, so a balanced budget with no tax hike should come as no real surprise.

We can understand, to a point, holding back on raises; that is sadly the reality for many taxpayers who work in the private sector. But depriving a key public safety agency of bodies when it is already stretched thin is a dangerous gamble — and an unfair burden for the current firefighters.

We believe the mayor should consider making at least a few new hires early next year — even two or three, perhaps — as a commitment to safety and relieving pressure on the staff.

It also could serve as a powerful measure of good faith when bargaining.

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©2018 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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