By James Pero
Though Rye’s 2016 budget proposal is in, the decision to add any additional staffing is still up in the air—even for a waning fire department that has lost numerous volunteers.
Now, in an effort to help guide the decision of the Rye City Council on the issue of fire department staffing, a seven-member, mayor-appointed study group has been formed by Mayor Joe Sack, a Republican.
The committee—which will consist of Councilman Richard Mecca, a longtime volunteer firefighter, Mayor Sack, Councilwoman Kirstin Bucci, City Manager Marcus Serrano and Fire Lt. Kurt Tietjen—will deliberate which staffing levels are appropriate in order to ensure Rye residents’ safety, and then recommend actions to the city council.
So far, the group has yet to have an official meeting, according to Serrano, but will do so prior to the city budget being adopted in mid-December.
The issue—which is part of a larger trend of decreasing city staff that Serrano said has fallen by 10 percent over the past five years—has become a focal point for residents and city council members alike, after former City Manager Frank Culross stated it was “staffed for failure” at this time last year.
According to John Castelhano, president of the city’s fire union, the decision to form an advisory committee has arrived not a second too late, as Rye’s number of volunteer firefighters has dropped precipitously over the past two decades.
Currently, he told the Review, there are only 16 total volunteer interior firefighters—firefighters that are trained to enter buildings—and only about half of them are active. These firefighters supplement the current 17 paid firefighters assigned to the department full time.
Because of this lack of interior firefighters, he says the department’s capabilities are limited.
“Firefighters have two options: suppression or rescue,” Castelhano said. “With the staff we have right now, we can only do one of those…We don’t have enough manpower.”
Last year, there was a proposal from Culross that recommended hiring four new career firefighters, which would increase the number of paid firefighters on duty from three to four per hour; but the additions were nixed by the city council before the final 2015 budget approval.
In addition to staffing, forthcoming expenses in regard to the fire department—which has been without a new union contract since 2009—also include the replacement of an aging firetruck, Engine No. 191, which was flagged in last year’s budget for its deteriorating condition. The engine, which was originally purchased in 1994, is estimated to cost about $625,000 to replace, based on last year’s budget projections.
According to Mecca, though the tentative budget for 2016 doesn’t propose any additional staffing for the fire department, adding firefighters—if deemed necessary—isn’t entirely out of the question.
“There’s always consideration before the final budget is passed [in December],” he said.
Working against the likelihood of expensive new hires, however, are other understaffed departments such as the city’s Department of Public Works, which Serrano said is also in need of more staff members. In addition, the city manager said, if new hires are to take place, then the city would likely have to break the state-mandated tax cap, meaning that residents who would normally receive a state tax refund check would not do so.
Sack could not be reached for comment as of press time.