Thursday, November 18, 2010

column from phil reisman re: fire consolidation report

Taxpayers, municipal workers fight culture war
By Phil Reisman • Journal News columnist • November 18, 2010

On Tuesday I attended a tense press conference at Greenburgh Town Hall where I listened to the findings contained in the final report of the Fire Department Consolidation & Government Efficiency Commission.




That's a dry-sounding mouthful.

But the commission's conclusions and recommendations were as hot as a five-alarm blaze.

The idea was to find ways to save taxpayer money in an era of declining revenue and out-of-control costs. So the commission's main purpose was to study the feasibility of merging three fire districts within the town — an option that was ultimately rejected as too unwieldy and expensive.

Along the way, however, the commission discovered — and highlighted — some inconvenient truths about firefighter pay, overtime and pension benefits in those districts.

For instance, they found that the average pay was $125,712, which is 32 percent higher than the average pay firefighters receive in White Plains, Scarsdale and Eastchester. The three fire chiefs earn $207,358 on average compared to a "peer group" average salary of $156,077.

Two of the districts — Hartsdale and Fairview — added $1.7 million to pension costs by changing over to a more lucrative plan that calculates the retirement benefit on the basis of a one-year final average salary, rather than three years. Voters were not told of the change, but the commission pointed out that voter approval wasn't required.

One result of the pension change was that eight out of the last 18 firefighters who retired over the past five years in the two districts got pensions of more than $100,000, an amount that was aided by overtime accrued in the last year.

In detailing these and other findings, Alan Hochberg, the commission chairman, took pains to say that the firefighters — "the finest, I'm sure, of any fire department in the nation" — were not the issue.

I don't doubt Hochberg's sincerity, but the disclaimer was probably taken as lip service by the rank and file.

Consensus was lacking. Three of the nine commission members did not concur with the commission's report; two of them were fire chiefs and the other was a fire commissioner.



Clearly the commission's work, though impressive, was an unpleasant experience. According to Hochberg and other civilian members on the commission, it was marred by suspicion, anger and foot-dragging on the part of the fire districts — especially the Greenville district — which barely complied with requests for information. Midway through the fact-finding process, Hochberg's credibility was viciously attacked, resulting in a confrontation that almost led to blows between two other men at a meeting. You can find it on YouTube.




Hochberg said change is needed to keep the state from going bankrupt. "But the trouble in dealing with unions, changing contracts ... concepts ... is extremely difficult," he warned. "And I've said many times before if I had to chair this commission again, I wouldn't."

That's a sobering comment to be noted by anyone in Westchester wishing to find fair, common-sense solutions to the problem of runaway taxes.

How did it get this way — this gap in misunderstanding between the municipal workforce and taxpayers at large?

It's just an off-the-cuff theory, but it might be rooted in the social and political history of the post-war suburbs. In the not-so-distant past, the white-collar types who lived in the more affluent towns commuted to New York City.

The homefront was protected by cops and firefighters. And it was maintained by sanitation workers and highway crews —- men who formed the blue-collar backbone of local government.

These guys did the dirty work that the commuters didn't do, or couldn't. Though they were crucial to the quality of life enjoyed by everyone, they were at times treated like glorified servants, or at least were taken for granted. Their pay wasn't all that hot, either.

The two groups evolved separately. With the rise of the two-family income, the commuters became increasingly disconnected from the day-to-day life of the communities they lived in. They stopped paying attention. Many of them didn't know who their mayor was, or which police department to call when they got in a jam.



When their kids graduated from the top-notch high schools and left for college, many of them moved.




Meanwhile, the municipal workers stayed. They got better organized and more professional. Their skills became finely honed. This greatly benefited the towns they served.

Naturally, the workers wanted their fair piece of the pie so they bargained for better pay and benefits. Over time they got what they wanted — and maybe more.

On the other side of the bargaining table were elected officials who knew that the commuters were a fickle, disengaged voting bloc. But the unionized workers, well, they were influential, informed and got the vote out in huge numbers.

So sure, the politicians reasoned, a 4 percent raise and some retirement sweeteners won't break the bank, right?

Everybody got fat, dumb and happy.

Then one day the economy went south. And the two suburban cultures clashed. They had grown so far apart that they didn't even recognize each other anymore.

Stereotypes were thrown around recklessly. The workers were greedy, even crooks in some cases. Those taxpayers who begrudged them were spoiled misers who always got Wall Street-sized bonuses at Christmas.

As Hochberg of the Greenburgh town commission pointed out, this kind of rhetorical spitballing will be hard to overcome.

But he pinned his hopes on the idea that the commission's 65-page report will provide a "wish-list" for public education. If nothing else, the average citizen has to get up to speed on the fundamentals of their tax bill and how their money is being spent.

You can't complain if you're not informed. And you won't get anywhere if you don't know and understand the other side's point of view.

But it doesn't take a genius to recognize the fact that the bill is due and the day of reckoning is around the corner.

Reach Phil Reisman at preisman@lohud.com or call 914-694-5008.

1 comments:

tymerry16 said...

There is an article on the Fairview Fire District’s response to the Town’s consolidation committee report at http://westchesternewsonline.com/greenburgh-fire-district-responds-commission-report.