The $500,000 Question
By Robin Jovanovich
One of the promises this City Council made was to ramp up the City’s street repaving schedule and fix Rye’s woefully substandard roads. The 2020 City Budget, which was passed unanimously at the end of last year, includes $1,800,000 for street resurfacing.
So, residents were surprised to learn at the June 10 Council meeting that because of an unexpected $500,000 in overtime costs at the Rye Fire Department, that the second phase of street resurfacing — approximately $800,000 — would be deferred, until fall or later, from funding planned roadwork.
We asked City Manager Greg Usry and Mayor Josh Cohn, in separate conversations, to explain what happened.
The City Manager said that when he was reviewing Fire Department costs earlier this year he came to the conclusion that it would be more fiscally prudent for the City to hire additional professional firefighters than to incur high overtime charges as they have had to do in the last year because of a number of serious structure fires.
“A firefighter can work one 24-hour shift, followed by three days off. He can work 1,776 hours a year; anything beyond scheduled hours is overtime,” he explained.
Since he took office, Mayor Cohn said he and the Council have been wrestling with the question of how to staff the RFD and reinvigorate the volunteers. “The City Manager must make the decisions with a view to having sufficient first response. What we saw when we looked at the rosters is that we’re not getting the same amount of assistance from volunteers. It is volunteers who have been the backbone of the Fire Department for a century, but because of aging, attrition, and the huge burden of interior qualified training in order to be able to enter a burning building, their number is dwindling.”
Rebuilding the Fire Department is a City priority, stressed Cohn. “We do have good mutual support from neighboring towns, but we need to have a pool of volunteers who show up, especially for emergencies, like a major storm response.”
Will the Rye Fire Department continue to report to a Public Safety Commissioner as it does now, or will the City revert to its former and longtime organization plan and separate the Police and Fire Department authorities?
The City Manager said it was too early in the process for him to comment. But at the July 15 Council meeting, he said, “The $500,000 is a sizable hole created by headcount. We’re moving to rectify that line.
The Mayor’s response was that the City is considering a hiring plan before the next budget. He added, “The City’s financial questions at this moment are larger than the $500,000. We don’t know what funding we’ll get from the State, how much sales tax we’ll receive. That’s why we divided the roadwork into two phases.”