OSWEGO, NY – The Oswego Common Council voted unanimously tonight to approve the 2017 budget that will eliminate 16 full-time firefighter positions and raise taxes by 1.97 percent.
A public hearing, which was held before the vote, drew a standing-room-only crowd to City Hall. People packed the chambers and the hallway, but only four people spoke against the budget.
The council voted 7 to 0 to approve a $47,565,037 budget for next year.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow unveiled his proposed budget earlier this month and drew criticism from fire department leadership and community members who opposed eliminating the 16 positions from the city’s payroll. One police lieutenant was also cut.
“I hate layoffs and these last few weeks have been the hardest weeks of my life,” Barlow said. “I wasn’t excited to come here tonight. I haven’t been excited to come to work these past two weeks. Especially since some of these guys that were affected I personally know — some of them my age, starting families and buying homes.”
John Geraci, president of the Oswego Firefighters Association Local 126, said he was worried about staffing levels and public safety. Supporters for the fire department rallied outside City Hall during a recent budget meeting and others took to social media to drum up support.
Before the vote, Geraci addressed the council.
“If you make the decision to cut these 16 firefighters, you’re going to need to be able to live with the results,” he said. “I don’t know if it happens tomorrow or next week or next year, but there are going to be negative consequences to these cuts.”
The need for the $1 million budget cut was the result of the end of a two-decade long agreement. The city had been receiving $1 million a year for the last 20 years from the sale of a water tunnel. City of Oswego lawmakers in 1996 agreed to the 20-year deal that guaranteed Onondaga County the right to draw up to 93 million gallons of water a day from Lake Ontario forever.
In an effort to avoid raising taxes, Barlow was forced to make cuts. Geraci said it was unfair that the city was taking aim solely at the fire department. Geraci said he believed the cuts should have been more evenly distributed and one department should not have to take the brunt of a $1 million cut.
The Oswego Fire Department currently has 58 members, not including the chief and assistant chief. The approved budget means the last 15 firefighters hired will now lose their jobs and the department would not fill one more position that was recently vacated from a retirement. Those 16 positions account for 27 percent of the fire department’s staff.
Barlow said the fire department can rehire some of the 15 firefighters back as on-call, part-time employees. Their salaries would be covered by money saved by the mayor putting an end to the department’s overtime practices.
Barlow signed an executive order earlier this month to end the department’s overtime practice that he says pads senior firefighters’ salaries and violates the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the firefighter’s union.
Barlow said the practice had allowed senior firefighters to add $20,000 to $40,000 in overtime pay to their salaries, boosting some salaries over $120,000 a year. That raises the firefighters’ pensions – and the cost to the taxpayers – for the rest of their lives.
The collective bargaining agreement dictates that overtime opportunities be evenly spread out amongst all firefighters. Since the mayor’s order, younger firefighters have accepted overtime, which saves taxpayers money because their overtime pay rate is almost half of some of the senior firefighters, Barlow said.
Geraci said the overtime issue is a way to draw attention from the real issues.
“Fifteen firefighters lost their jobs tonight,” he said.
Geraci said he doesn’t believe Barlow’s data correctly relates to Oswego and after the council meeting, he asked Barlow if he would talk with him. Barlow agreed.
“This isn’t over,” Geraci said. “There’s more work to be done.”