Mayor, Fire Council Offer Competing Proposals for Change
by Judy Silberstein*
(March 28, 2007) Merger with the Town of Mamaroneck? A new paid fire chief? Both?
These are among the proposals suddenly being proposed for the Village of Larchmont’s Fire Department this week. The mayor intends to appoint a paid chief as early as April 4, at a public board meeting previously scheduled as a budget work session. The Larchmont Fire Council, the governing body of the Fire Department, is recommending the merger and preparing to elect its own volunteer chief on April 5.
The Mayor’s Proposal: A New Paid Fire Chief
Mayor Liz Feld proposed the hiring of a paid chief at the Larchmont Fire Council’s Monday, March 26 meeting. Currently, Larchmont hires career firefighters, who staff the firehouse in shifts, drive the apparatus to the scene and fight fires. Volunteers along with the paid staff fight the fire under the leadership of the chief, who is also a volunteer. The chief, deputy chiefs and representatives of the four companies (Engine, Hose, Hook and Ladder, Patrol) make up the Fire Council, responsible for running the entire department and supervising both paid and volunteer firefighters.
The mayor’s plan is to create a new salaried civil service position of fire chief – and she already has a person in mind – Lt. Richard Heine, who served as a volunteer before becoming a professional firefighter. “He’s a proven leader and I have every confidence that he’s the guy to provide the leadership we need to make this structure work.” Lt. Heine has also served two tours of duty in the Iraq war as a medical corpsman with the Naval Reserves. (See: Larchmont Firefighter Back in Iraq - Now in Al Anbar.)
Getting the structure to work is what the board is after. Dissatisfaction with the current system goes back decades, said the mayor, who also stressed that the problems do not impact actual firefighting services. The addition of a professional captain of operations within the union in recent years has not quieted the critics.
“Frankly it’s very difficult to ask a member of a union to supervise and discipline his own staff,” said Mayor Feld. Furthermore, “Things have changed so much in the last three to four years. The amount of day-to-day work is too much to expect from a volunteer. It’s grown to be a full time job.”
The proposed chief would be on call 24/7 (as is the current chief), but he would not be a member of the union, receive overtime or drive the apparatus. His salary would be in the range of $95K to $125K (the lieutenants earn around $88K and a captain around $96K.) The board is also considering adding another firefighter position to increase staff during the day shift and to reduce the use of overtime. Mayor Feld said the board is looking to make cuts elsewhere in the budget; details are still being worked out.
There is support for the new chief from the paid staff. “It’s been a long time coming,” said Brian Doherty, president of Larchmont Professional Firefighters Association. “It’s the best thing that could happen for the Larchmont Fire Department and – more important - for the Village of Larchmont.” He pointed out that all the other departments already have professional management.
The volunteers have a different position.
Fire Council’s Proposal: Merge with Town of Mamaroneck
Tuesday morning, the all-volunteer Fire Council issued a press release with its own recommendation: Larchmont should merge its department with that of the Town of Mamaroneck, which is also a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters led by a volunteer chief.
Merger “could achieve taxpayer savings through efficiencies along with improved services and faster response times,” according to the release. Among the advantages given for consolidation would be a faster, safer response to Town of Mamaroneck’s Dillon Park neighborhood, which is closer to the Larchmont fire house but served by apparatus sent from Mamaroneck’s fire house on Weaver Street. The merger would reduce the number of trucks speeding from Weaver through Larchmont on the way to Dillon Park.
Savings could occur by requiring less paid staff and less overtime. According to Larchmont’s Deputy Chief Tom Broderick, “We’ve just completed a study of the department that shows that we already spend 42% more on paid firefighter salaries than the Town of Mamaroneck to protect 43% less property as measured by assessed valuation.” (See: http://lfdny.org for a description of the study.) The study did not predict a significant impact on a resident’s property tax, since the entire fire budget represents only a small fraction of the overall budget.
Other advantages include: better management and supervision of paid staff; avoiding response delays; access to a larger pool of volunteers; centralized dispatch; ability to immediately send an extra engine to a fire. More importantly, the study stresses, the combined department would have more experience in fighting fires.
As stated in the LFD study report “there are many details that would have to be worked out,” and among them are the legal authorizations that would be required to implement whatever mechanism was agreed upon. Two possible approaches were considered. One requires disbanding the Village department and expanding the Town fire district to encompass the Village of Larchmont. The other entails disbanding both the Village and Town departments and creating a new joint fire district.
Which New Plan? One, Both?
“I’m totally in favor of the merger,” said Trustee Jim Millstein, who was at the Fire Council with Mayor Feld. “But the devil is in the details – and in the politics. In theory, merger makes a lot of sense, in practice this takes a lot of time.”
Mayor Feld agreed that consolidation merits serious consideration, but listed potential difficulties, including two different labor contracts, different cultures, entrenched systems and structures, legal issues, and political will. A proper study of consolidation would take a long time, she suggested.
In the meantime, both argued, Larchmont should take steps to provide professional management of a department with over $2M in personnel costs.
Not a good idea, argued Jim Sweeney, a former LFD chief currently serving as the information officer. “Adding a paid chief will be a major impediment to consolidation. A new chief will naturally not want to support consolidation if it eliminates his job,” said Mr. Sweeney.
“That’s way down the road,” said Mayor Feld. “I’m not going to plan for something that doesn’t exist.
The potential merger partners – Mamaroneck Town Supervisor Valerie O’Keeffe, Administrator Steve Altieri and Fire Chief Matt Peloso – had just received the consolidation report and declined to offer opinions. “It’s complex – with Town law, Village law, civil service law and the fire department charters. We have to really dig in and study the report before we can have any meaningful comment,” said Chief Peloso.
According to Mr. Sweeney, Monday was the first meeting between the administration and the Fire Council, though both sides have been aware that proposals were in the works. “We held off on consolidation in deference to the other issues that were revolving around the Village, such as purchasing the new apparatus and Flint Park,” said Mr. Sweeney.
Mayor Feld said she unveiled her proposal now in advance of three deadlines: the 2007-2008 budget, still being finalized, is due April 30; the Fire Department holds elections on April 5; and Larchmont’s contract with its professional firefighters ends May 31 and a new contract would be impacted by having a paid chief.
The board has scheduled an extra public meeting on Wednesday, April 4 – a day ahead of the Fire Council elections. The aim is to appoint Rich Heine as chief, something Mayor Feld said the mayor, with the approval of the board, has the right to do.
Who Appoints the Chief - Dueling Legal Opinions?
According to Mr. Sweeney, it’s the Fire Council who nominates the chief by election. The board accepts or rejects the nominee.
Village Attorney Jim Staudt explained the advice he gave the board: “If there is not a paid chief, yes, the volunteers elect a volunteer chief. But the board always has the right to engage a paid chief.“
“We have researched this legally as well,” said Mr. Sweeney, “and we feel we have legal grounds to dispute the Village. We will not recognize any other chief than the one we elect,” he stressed.
“It’s not Rich [Heine] or his demeanor – it’s not that,” said Mr. Sweeney. “The membership respects him – but that is not the issue. There are laws in place,” he stressed, “we’re just following what’s in the law.”
The board and the Fire Council seem headed for a collision on April 4, unless some accommodation can be found in the next few days.
*Judy Silberstein is married to Ned Benton, a member of the Larchmont Fire Department and one of the authors of the merger study.