One-third of Allentown firefighters retired last year

ALLENTOWN, PA &#8211 Allentown officials knew a staggering number of city firefighters would retire in 2011, it was just a matter of how many.

Fire Chief Robert Scheirer predicted months ago that some 50 firefighters would retire before the union’s contract that contained a generous pension clause was set to expire Dec. 31, echoing a similar mass exodus six years ago in the police department.

Now that the paperwork has settled, city officials say 42 firefighters left in 2011 — nearly one-third of the department usually staffed with about 140 firefighters. That’s by far the most firefighter retirees in one year, second only to the departure of 80 police officers six years ago.

Because the city predicted dozens of firefighters would step down to take advantage of higher pensions, officials say they were prepared and public safety won’t be compromised.

“We will keep the department staffed and we will continue to do our jobs,” Scheirer said.

But union President John Stribula, who represents the local chapter of International Association of Firefighters, said with the retirements, the department won’t be up to full strength for six months. Even then, new and inexperienced firefighters won’t have the institutional knowledge of the veteran firefighters to fall back on, said Stribula, who was one of the 42 retirees.

The exodus will strain the department’s already underfunded pension account and city contributions to it will jump next year by $1.1 million, or 25 percent, to $5.1 million, according to a recent actuarial report. The retirements will also cause a spike in overtime wages for six months while new recruits complete their training, officials say.

Under the contract that was set to expire Dec. 31 but remains in arbitration, firefighters had overtime earnings calculated into their pensions, which often pushed pensions far above their base salaries. Mayor Ed Pawlowski has vowed the next contract will be more stringent and put pensions in line with earnings.

The contract with the fire union is the last vestige of a crippling deal made by former Mayor Roy C. Afflerbach, Pawlowski said Tuesday.

The result of that deal — skyrocketing pension costs threatening to consume one-quarter of the city budget — is one of the biggest issues facing the city, he said.

The expiring contract encouraged three times as many firefighters to step down in 2011 than in 2010, city spokesman Mike Moore said. Of the 42 retirees, 29 retired in the last three months of the year, he said.

The department currently has 34 vacancies, he said.

The city has been preparing to fill the vacancies with two simultaneous 18-week academies for new recruits that are scheduled to begin Feb. 13, putting the department back to full force by summer, Scheirer said.

But the lack of real experience “certainly won’t be replaced overnight,” Stribula said.

The advent of 2012 was supposed to end the uncertainty swirling around the fire department. The administration would finally know for sure how many firefighters called it quits and could begin to rebuild under a more stringent contract.

However, the contract between the city and the fire union is still in arbitration. Because of the unexpected unavailability of the impartial arbitrator, those talks have not been rescheduled, city solicitor John Marchetto said.

That means both parties continue to operate under the old contract. Under it, the department has to staff the city’s four platoons with at least 30 firefighters every shift, an agreement called the minimum manpower clause.

It’s a requirement that Pawlowski has said he hopes will be stricken from the next contract, along with using overtime earnings to calculate pensions, an early retirement clause that allows firefighters to “purchase” additional service for a higher pension and the sick day policy.

Because of the minimum-manning agreement, overtime pay will increase over last year for the first six months while recruits complete their training, Scheirer said. Then in the last six months, he added, the city will see a drop compared with last year.

Scheirer estimated the city paid out about $1.5 million in overtime costs in 2011.

The same amount is budgeted for 2012, but the department expects it to only have to fund six months of overtime until the department returns to full strength, Scheirer said.

“Both sides were hoping for a settlement but it will all be determined in arbitration,” he said.

From The Morning Call.