Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fairview Fire District's Staffing Crisis Continues

I reported in May that the Fairview Fire District is in crisis.  At a public workshop meeting on May 26, Fairview officials revealed that there is a short-term crisis in under-staffing, and a long-term crisis in financing.  If these crises cannot be resolved, the level of service in Fairview will need to be reduced.  Such a reduction would represent a game-changing dismantling of part of Fairview's mission, resulting in increased risk to life and property, as well as increases in insurance rates for all Fairview property owners.  This post is an update on the staffing crisis.

What is the staffing crisis?

The staffing crisis was explained at the May 26 meeting by Fairview Firefighter Mark Bendel as follows:  The fire station must be staffed by four career firefighters at all times (24x7) in order to maintain Fairview's level of service in the District.  This staffing level requires at least 16 career firefighters to fill all shifts, assuming a “normal” 42 hour work week.  Three firefighters have recently left the District (retirement and transfer), and one more is unavailable because of medical leave.  To continue Fairview's level of service, the remaining 12 firefighters have been working major amounts of overtime (mostly at straight-time pay) for many months.  Although the financial cost of this arrangement to the District is minimal, the stress on firefighters is extreme, and unsustainable.  Firefighters are overworked, morale is low, and additional firefighters are said to be considering leaving the District, which would further exacerbate the crisis.

The District cannot simply reduce the fire station staffing from four per shift to three, even temporarily, without major repercussions.  Bendel explained that having only three firefighters available to fight a structure fire would dramatically reduce the level of service, resulting in significant increases in risk to both life and property.  Not only that, but the reduced level of service would cause all property insurance rates in the fire district to increase considerably.  All stakeholders would be substantially affected by a reduced level of service.

Board of Fire Commissioners Eventually Hires Two Firefighters

The staffing crisis was well known to Fairview's board of fire commissioners even before the May 26 meeting.  At the April 5 commissioners meeting, firefighters union representatives pleaded with the commissioners to authorize the hiring of three additional firefighters, but the commissioners took no action at that time.  However, at the June 7 commissioners meeting, they passed a resolution authorizing the hiring of two firefighters.  Two firefighters were hired at the beginning of July.

So problem solved, or at least alleviated, right?  

Unfortunately, not.  For one thing, the District didn't really hire two firefighters.  It hired two EMTs, who must still be trained in firefighting, at District expense.  (If the District had just hired “off the street”, the employees would have had to be trained in EMT and firefighting, at much greater time and expense.  So hiring EMTs was a big advantage.)

The two EMTs are currently being trained at the New York State Academy of Fire Science in Montour Falls, and cannot be deployed in the department until November.  Meanwhile, Fairview's firefighters have continued to struggle under massive amounts of overtime, since only 12 out of a needed 16 firefighters are available.  On average, firefighters have been working 56 hours per week, every week.  But overtime cannot be distributed evenly, for a variety of reasons.  Some firefighters have been working 70 hours a week for many weeks in a row. 

OK, so in November, problem alleviated, right?

Unfortunately, not so much.  In November, when the two new firefighters are to be deployed in the station,  the staffing shortfall was expected to have been reduced from 4 to 2.  But in an ironic turn of events, it was announced during the September 6 commissioners meeting that yet another firefighter has submitted his resignation, and will be leaving the District by the end of this month.  So the staffing shortfall in October will be an outrageous 5 firefighters out of 16, meaning that the average firefighter will work 61 hours during that month.  Beginning in November when the two new firefighters will be deployed, the staffing shortage will still be 3 out of 16 — almost as bad as it's been since last spring.

It Gets Worse

The irony is increased further by the fact that the resigning firefighter is none other than Mark Bendel, the eloquent spokesman for the firefighters at the May 26 meeting.  Bendel has been a major asset to the District.  His loss will be deeply felt.

And It Could Get Even Worse

As things now stand, Fairview is faced with the need to hire two more firefighters, just to bring staffing up to the minimum of 16 firefighters on staff.  And even then, one of those firefighters is on medical leave, so overtime will still be necessary until he returns.  But the staffing situation could easily get worse.  Four firefighters are eligible to retire, and could do so at any time.  And considering the low morale, other firefighters may transfer to other districts, where they can expect to work only 42 hours a week instead of up to 70.  During the public comment session of the September 6 commissioners meeting, former Fairview Fire Commissioner and Board Chairman (and current volunteer safety officer for the District) John Anspach reprimanded the current board of fire commissioners for not authorizing full staffing, pointing out that the sustained excessive overtime decreases safety for all the firefighters.  At the same meeting, Fairview firefighters union president Tim Gilnack announced that the union was considering filing a formal grievance against the District.  Regardless of the outcome of a grievance filing, it would take time, energy, and money away from solving Fairview's problems.

Fairview's Fundamental Problem

If staffing were Fairview's only problem, it could easily be solved:  Just hire more firefighters.  But as I see it, under-staffing is only a symptom of Fairview's fundamental problem, a shortage of money in the long term.  Most of Fairview's budget pays for firefighters' hourly wages and benefits, and most of Fairview's income comes from the fire tax levy to property owners.  In other words, unless Fairview can acquire a significant new source of income, the number of firefighters per shift that Fairview can support is roughly proportional to Fairview's fire tax levy.

Fairview's fire tax levy is already high compared with Fairview's tax base.  The ratio of the two, which measures how steeply taxpayers' wealth is taxed by the fire district, is called the true value tax rate.  Fairview already has the highest true value fire tax rate in Dutchess County, and one of the highest in New York State.  Significantly increasing this tax rate may not be politically tenable.  Unfortunately, Fairview's tax base is shrinking.  This means that even without increasing Fairview's 2012 tax levy at all, Fairview's 2012 tax rate is projected to increase 2.8 percent to $5.25 per thousand dollars of market value, making it Fairview's highest tax rate in a decade.

What Were the Fire Commissioners Thinking?

My understanding is that Fairview's long-term financial crisis is the reason why some commissioners have been hesitant to increase staffing.  The commissioners say they authorized two new firefighters in June only because of  new concessions by the firefighters union, worth $80,000 over two years.   By taking this action, the commissioners may have allowed the District to limp along a little while longer before the day of reckoning arrives.  But as the staffing situation continues to be unstable, it's difficult to say how much time this action will buy.  If firefighters continue to leave the district, the morale of Fairview's overworked firefighters will continue to deteriorate, accelerating a downward spiral that has already begun.

My thanks to Fairview Fire Chief Chris Maeder and other members of the department for graciously providing me with information about staffing.


  1. Assuming the Commissioners agree to go for full staffing. Sure that alleviates the staff issues and brings the fire house up-to a functional level where the firemen are not overworked and can relax and have more time off as they should. What type of projected tax rate increase would we see?

    Assuming that scenario, how many of the fixed income families dwelling in the fairview would be in dire straights?

    What about long term for those that can sustain a bit higher taxes now..

    As time goes on the large Tax Excempt properties will continue growing. I think this situation can only get worse as time goes on.

    I have considered running for the 5th commissioner seat to put another fairview tax payers voice on the board, but I fear I have no solution or ideas to bring to the table to help things along.

    It seems no matter which way things swing, one side is in for a hurting.

    Andrew M - 6 Cobey

  2. @Andrew M: Thanks so much for your thoughtful questions and comments. Regarding projected tax rate increases, Fairview officials presented information about this at the May 26 meeting. Unfortunately, their presentation was flawed by mistakes (see my 9/4 blog post), and was in any case hard to follow. In my view, it is essential for us to see a simpler, cleaner, and corrected presentation of the projected tax rate increases, perhaps along the lines of my 9/6 blog post.

    Regarding tax exempt properties in Fairview, there has been much misinformation, which I have been trying to correct for three years. My data show that tax exempt properties in Fairview are not growing any faster, proportionally, than the taxable properties. According to my March 31, 2010, blog post at, Fairview's exempt percent has remained steady at around 47.8 percent for three years, with no discernible trend. If the housing project at Hudson River Psychiatric ever gets built, the exempt percent could even go down.

    Regarding your thought to run for fire commissioner, Fairview has a desperate need for commissioners with leadership skills such as understanding and presenting financial data, managing conflicting objectives, articulating positions, and working with other people. If you have some of these skills and an interest in learning about fire department operations, you would be an asset to Fairview's board of fire commissioners. I plan to post to this blog soon about Fairview’s leadership vacuum.

  3. I've considered putting my name on the ballot too only to prevent the taxpayers from loosing conrol of the board. The really problem lies with New York State Laws but Albany is not paying any attention especially Miller and Saland while they feed the NFP non-taxpaying entities while these same entities continue to take property of the tax rolls in this very small fire district. As long as it is not killing them or coming out of their pockets they could care less. Regionalization is the Key but will any new Co. Exec. really consider this or just pander in this election year. "Trust but Verify"


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.