The president of Bethlehem's firefighters union took aim at city leaders Thursday for a budget proposal that he said will put the department at its lowest staffing levels since the 1980s.
"By cutting staffing, you are placing the firefighters, the citizens and the city at risk," said David A. Saltzer, president of Bethlehem Local 735 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "You're choosing money over safety."
Saltzer made the comments during City Council's third budget hearing, one in which the city's public safety and water departments were discussed.
With at least 40 other union members in the Town Hall gallery, Saltzer said he was upset that the loss of two firefighters through attrition was not even mentioned in council's discussion of the department with Fire Commissioner George Barkanic. That budget cut would reduce the city's firefighting force to 109, Saltzer said.
What Barkanic did discuss is a dramatic increase in overtime since 2008 from $277,000 to $782,000 this year.
Barkanic said the reason is a part of the most recent union contract, which requires no less than 22 firefighters to be on duty at any time. Prior to that the city only had to staff 20 firefighters per shift.
The department structure has 26 men on per shift. However, no less than two, and sometimes three firefighters are always on vacation. If one or two others call off sick or have a personal day, the city is required by contract to call in a firefighter for overtime.
Barkanic said sick leave has only increased since the new contract took effect.
"I personally believe that the overtime is feeding the sick leave, which is feeding the overtime," Barkanic said. "Minimum staffing will be addressed in the next contract."
Mayor John Callahan has said that public safety departments are the least affected of city departments in his proposed $6 million budget reduction. Firefighters and police both lose two positions, through attrition, not layoffs. Callahan was not at Thursday night's hearing.
Saltzer defended the new minimum staffing saying that it allows for every truck in the city to be staffed with two firefighters. With 20 firefighters, some trucks only got one, which is a safety issue for firefighters who try to have two firefighters outside a burning building for every two that are inside.
"The goal every day is to be able to go home," he said. "I want to go home at night. I want to see my wife."
The other firefighters in attendance broke out in applause.
Assistant Fire Chief Dave Ruhf, a 34-year veteran of the department, told council that when he was hired in 1976, there were 116 Bethlehem firefighters. In 1983, 10 firefighters were laid off, knocking the number down to 106. The department has never returned to that pre-layoff level, Ruhf said.
The department has also been working with less equipment, one less ladder truck and one less engine than it had when he first joined, Ruhf said.
"This department has been adapting and overcoming since I first got in," he said. If firefighters work more hours, you can expect sick leave to increase, he added.
"It's our own fault because we've adapted to whatever you asked us to do," Ruhf said. "We need more men, not less men."