FIRE DEPARTMENT CONSOLIDATION & GOVERNMENT EFFICIENCY COMMISSION
GREENBURGH FIRE CONSOLIDATION COMMISSION ISSUES FINAL REPORT
Seeks Administrative and Benefits Savings, Recommends Only Partial Consolidation Now
GREENBURGH, NY, November, 16, 2010 – Greenburgh?s three independent fire districts that on average spend 32 percent more for personnel compensation than comparable peers were urged today to initiate cost-savings measures to lessen the impact of a “Perfect Storm” of financial troubles that appear imminent, even though for the last two years, tax increases have been minimal.
The request and warning was issued in a report by the Fire Department Consolidation & Government Efficiency Commission (FDCGEC), an independent commission comprised of citizens, business leaders and fire officials that was created by the Greenburgh Town Board just over a year ago following adoption of a state law that encourages local communities to explore potential tax savings through the consolidation of municipal services.
Because of what it perceived was a weakness in that new state law that gives citizens the ability to put consolidation referendum on the ballot, and for other reasons, the FDCGEC did not recommend at this time full consolidation of the Fairview, Greenville and Hartsdale fire districts. It did say that savings and efficiencies could be achieved by administrative consolidation whereby one fire chief would substitute for the current three and by improved fiscal and business practices.
Last year the compensation for the Fairview chief was $215,605, the Greenville chief was $206,969, and the Hartsdale chief was $199,500. Under administrative consolidation, commissioners of the three districts (five commissioners each) would continue to exercise local control, levy taxes, and incur indebtedness. State law already authorizes them to consolidate fully, if they chose.
The FDCGEC also urged the town government to hire independent outside experts to study optimal staffing levels of the fire departments. It urged creation of a permanent watchdog committee to keep the community aware of the activities of the three fire districts, and also proposed changes in state law that could lead to reductions in fire suppression costs, including basing pension payments only on base pay and excluding overtime and other benefits.
“The Perfect Storm is upon us,” the report stated, noting that revenue was declining because of reductions in the tax base as property values shrink. Meanwhile, expenses are escalating for salaries, health care costs, pensions, and lack of pension contributions by personnel who were hired prior to this year.
Alan Hochberg of Hartsdale, who chaired the commission, said the mandate given it was to examine whether the money could be saved without jeopardizing public safety. “It is important that we seek to find ways to increase the number of firefighters available for firefighting duty, maintain the existing number of fire houses in the three districts, and encourage greater voter participation in elections for fire district commissioners and district budgets. Fire protection is a significant portion of our local property tax bill, and we deserve to get the maximum bang for our buck.”
Among the findings of the study:
Over a seven-year period (between 2003 and 2010), property taxes levied by the three fire districts increased by 63 percent, or an average annual gain of 7.03 percent, while the corresponding cost of living was up an average of only 2.6 percent per year.
Assuming that salaries continue to increase at 4 percent per year, contributions to the pension fund increase by 18 percent per annum, and medical and dental premiums increase by 15 percent per year, than property tax rates starting in 2011 through 2015 are expected to increase 8.4 percent per year.
The average income for firefighters in three districts was $125,712 in the latest reporting year; total compensation is higher by 32 percent when compared to a peer group of firefighters in the City of White Plains, Village of Scarsdale and Eastchester Fire District that averaged $95,210. The peer group consisted of predominantly paid career firefighters. The disparity stems primarily from higher base salaries and overtime.
The average income for a fire chief in each of the three districts in 2009 was $207,358; this compensation is higher by 34 percent when compared to a peer group consisting of the City of White Plains, City of New Rochelle and Village of Scarsdale that averaged $156,077.
Fairview, Greenville and Hartsdale fire districts have 111 fire suppression personnel and combined salary and overtime costs of $14.6 million; by comparison, the City of White Plains has 167 fire personnel and combined salary and overtime costs of $15.4 million. For an additional $800,000, White Plains has 56 additional firefighters.
Salaries, overtime and benefits comprise about 86 percent of the three districts? budgets. Hartsdale and Fairview have a more generous and costly pension program; pensions are based on the final year of service instead of the three-year averaging of Greenville and most other fire departments. The change to a final year averaging increases retirement contributions to the state pension system by Hartsdale and Fairview by 2.5 percent and required them to pay the state $1.7 million for past years. The one-year final average plan resulted in eight of the last 18 retirees receiving pensions that exceeded $100,000 a year.
In 2009, the three districts incurred overtime costs of $2.4 million (16 percent of compensation); a pattern was found of employees who incurred a disproportionate amount of overtime in the years leading up to retirement relative to other overtime eligible individuals which may inflate their retirement pensions.
Fire districts pay for the full medical and dental costs of all fire personnel, their spouses and dependents, and continue to do the same for firefighters and spouses in retirement.
Fire districts pay for the full pension benefits of all fire personnel (except for employees hired after this past January 1, who are required to contribute 3 percent of the pension costs).
The three fire districts employ four civilian employees (secretaries, clerks, treasurers) earning in the aggregate almost $350,000 in 2009, and some receiving comparable medical/dental and pension benefits and paid holidays to those of uniformed firefighters.
Only Greenville has signed up with 60-Control, a popular program run by the Westchester County Department of Emergency Services which provides dispatching of phone calls for fire department assistance at no cost to the participating members; 44 other fire agencies throughout Westchester and 20 Emergency Medical Services (EMS) agencies currently utilize this service. Hartsdale and Fairview use existing personnel as dispatchers at a cost totaling more than $800,000 a year.
Fire district employees receive up to 14 holidays off and get paid for those days on top of base salary; Fairview personnel get their birthdays with pay.
Fire personnel provide inspections of commercial buildings, conduct training exercises, school lectures, train babysitters, pump out basements during floods, and other duties.
The FDCGEC group recommended that a further study explore the feasibility of using paid civilian personnel to handle call dispatching and/or the use of Westchester County 60-Control for centralized dispatching (either solution could free personnel for firefighting duties while reducing overtime expenses); better communication among fire districts and constituents regarding upcoming elections, budgets and other important news; moving elections for fire commissioners and budgets to a more convenient date in the spring or fall instead of the present second Tuesday in December; and schedule regular meetings among fire commissioners of the three districts to share “best practices”; an exploration of the most equitable way to spread past and future bonding obligations in case of a consolidation in addition to the appointment of an independent watchdog group to conduct ongoing oversight of the respective fire districts.
The FDCGEC commended the career firefighters and volunteers for their bravery, dedication and hard work. In addition to use of better fiscal and business practices to put more firefighting personnel on the street, the FDCGEC expressed the desire to maintain all current fire district buildings and equipment – in fact, improving the condition of these buildings and equipment, where necessary, particularly in Fairview where the two fire stations are badly in need of repairs.
Mr. Hochberg stated, “The „Perfect Storm? may be fast approaching due to the combination of growing expenses – many of them mandated by state laws and collective bargaining agreements, shrinking sources of revenue, and resistance by taxpayers to further tax increases. The alternative to change may only be more taxes or reduced firefighting capabilities. We don?t wish to see either occur. I am sure all of the members of the FDCGEC agree that they would not want to reduce firefighting personnel”
Luis Polit, a member of the FDCGEC, added that administrative consolidation is one small step to achieve savings which can be redeployed to augment resources. More meaningful savings would come from the union representing the Greenburgh firefighters working hand in hand with the districts to give concessions on healthcare costs and aligning salaries with those of its peers. He also called on the state?s lawmakers to reevaluate and amend the current pension laws. While there has been some pension reform requiring employees hired after January 1, 2010 to contribute to the pension plan, the full benefit of this change in the law will not be realized until there is full turnover in the force, which in the districts could take about 20-years. More reform is needed. He also summoned on the state?s lawmakers to amend the pension law so that overtime is excluded for purposes of determining retiree benefits.
A copy of the FDCGEC report in located on the official Town of Greenburgh website at http://www.greenburghny.com/
About the Greenburgh Fire Department Consolidation & Government Efficiency Commission (FDCGEC)
Appointed by the Greenburgh Town Board in September 2009, the commission is comprised of a current district fire chief, a deputy fire chief, a fire district commissioner, a retired senior editor of The Journal News, a Certified Public Accountant, a retired chief auditor of United States Department of Transportation, a retired executive director of a large religious organization, and three current or former corporate business executives.
About the Fairview, Greenville and Hartsdale Fire Districts
The three fire districts originated about a century ago, initially as all-volunteer bucket brigades, and became taxing districts during the 1920s. They cover about 73% of unincorporated Greenburgh, or about 11.7 square miles (the other 27% are in fire protection districts which are contracted by the Town of Greenburgh). The Town of Greenburgh collects property taxes that have been levied by the three fire districts and transfers the collection to the respective districts.