Watertown budget talks turn fire department on the defensive

May 23, 2016

When Joe Butler, Watertown’s new mayor, started drafting the budget for next year he knew money was going to be tight. He and the rest of city council saw one department as ripe for cuts: the Watertown Fire Department.

A public battle

The Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191 has been without a contract since 2014 and negotiations with the city have been tense. Fire department costs are at the center. In a two-part press release distributed earlier this month, Butler released the salaries of the department’s entire staff including the cost of their health insurance and retirement.

Watertown Mayor Joe Butler says the firefighters union contract needs to be revised to save taxpayer money.
Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News

Directly addressing what he calls the “overburdened taxpayers,” Butler wrote, “You should know how costly it is to provide this service.” He says he’s proud of the fire department, but he can’t get behind the requirements in their contract.

“Just because you love your kids doesn’t mean you can give them everything they want.”

Minimum staffing requirements

The city council’s biggest gripe with the union contract is the requirement that 15 firefighters be on duty at all times. The council says the 15 firefighter minimum staffing requirement costs too much.

The fire department disagrees. They say that 15 firefighters is the appropriate and mandated staffing level by the National Fire Protection Association for a city the size of Watertown.

Top-heavy leadership

The city also criticized the fire department’s leadership and organizational structure. Sharon Addison, Watertown’s city manager, called it inefficient and “top heavy” citing a significant supervisor to firefighter ratio. The fire department has 27 officers and 48 firefighters.

Addison said no other department, not even the Watertown Police Department, has that much management. In a memo last week, Addison suggested demoting up to 10 of the department’s leaders in order to cut costs.

An ax to grind?

Dan Daugherty, president of the firefighter’s union, thinks that the public budget fight is about more than cutting costs.

“City leadership does not like the fire department,” said Daugherty.

Dan Daugherty, president of the with the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191.
Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News File Photo

According to him, 15 firefighters is the national standard. And, restructuring the fire department could jeopardize the safety of the Watertown residents even more.

Daugherty says the firefighter’s union has presented the city with its own proposal for how to move forward in revising the union contract proposing that overtime costs for firefighters would be lower if the city hired more personnel.

“It’s cheaper to pay straight time than time-and-a-half. I don’t know why the city hasn’t figured that out now,” Daugherty added.

Butler says that under the current contract agreement, more staff would add additional pension and retirement costs down the line.

Public safety versus public spending?

Butler says he takes public safety seriously, but he is also focused on reducing public spending.

“You have to balance the financial strength of the city. You can’t create two departments that create safety, but drive taxes up so high no one wants to live in the city,” said Butler.

Meanwhile, the firefighter’s union says the public’s safety is at-risk under Butler’s leadership.

“He is endangering our safety and putting us in greater danger of not making it home at all. He is also making Watertown a less safe place to work, live, and grow as a community,” wrote Daugherty.

Monday night, the Watertown City Council plans to decide on one of two plans for the fire department. The first would eliminate the deputy chief and battalion dhief positions and demote eight captains. A second option would avoid layoffs, but demote 10 leaders.

In a heated press release distributed late Sunday evening, the firefighter’s union offered another alternative: a 24-hour shift package deal. They say it will reduce costs without reducing the workforce. And, if the plan is not considered, they say arbitration is next.