ALLENTOWN, Pa. - A 2012 decision to take $500,000 from the Allentown fire department to pay consultants was defended by city officials before members of City Council Wednesday night.
Council member Jeanette Eichenwald first questioned the reason for the
$500,000 transfer at a City Council meeting last month.
She told city managing director Francis Dougherty she would want answers at Wednesday's meeting of council's public safety committee, which she chairs.
Eichenwald's initial concern was that $500,000 could have been used to staff another city EMS ambulance operating at night in the city.
But she expanded on that Wednesday, saying Allentown also needs more firefighters. She said the number of firefighters is at a low point.
Dougherty was accompanied by Fire Chief Robert Kudlak, Jr., who had no complaints about the fund transfer.
After the meeting, Eichenwald said Kudlak "is toeing the administration line. I can't imagine there's a fire chief anywhere in the world that, if he were given the opportunity to speak for himself, wouldn't want to fully staff his fire department."
Dougherty began the conversation by saying Eichenwald had raised a question and allegations concerning the police and fire budgets at the last council meeting.
"Excuse me for interrupting you, Mr. Dougherty, but I don't consider it an allegation," said Eichenwald. "It was a question."
"We view it as an allegation," countered Dougherty. "We'll argue over semantics, but let's get to the answer."
Eichenwald said, and Dougherty agreed, that the $500,000 transfer from the fire department took place in 2012 and that money was transferred back into the city's general fund to pay for consultants.
Said Dougherty: "I need to state for the record that this transfer was done per policy, per procedure. It was signed, in accordance with council rules and ordinances, by four of the seven members of City Council – allowing the transfer to happen."
Eichenwald was not one of the four council members who approved that
2012 transfer. It was signed by council president Julio Guridy, vice president Ray O'Connell and council members Joe Davis and Cynthia Mota.
"It was done above-board," said O'Connell, who also said: "I'm not going to get into what it was spent for; not my concern."
A copy of the $500,000 transfer authorization provided by Eichenwald states it was done for to pay water and sewer concession consultants.
But those words were crossed out and replaced with handwritten words, which state the transfer was to pay "unfunded police and fire pension liability project consultants."
The city has leased its water and sanitary sewer systems to Lehigh County Authority to avert an impending police and fire pension debt crisis.
Eichenwald has been a frequent critic of the administration of Mayor Ed Pawlowski hiring highly-paid consultants for controversial projects.
In 2012, she demanded to know how the administration intended to pay an estimated $1 million in fees owed consultants who worked on the water and sewer lease and a waste-to-energy plant.
She was one of two council members who voted against the contract for the Delta Thermo plant in March 2012 and the only one who voted against the water/sewer lease in April 2013.
On Wednesday, Eichenwald said her issue, as chairwoman of council's public safety committee, "is to be concerned about the public safety of the citizens of this community."
Rather than the money being used for consultants, she said: "That half million dollars could have been better used to provide to more fire department employees or to put another ambulance on the street with two additional EMS employees."
"I'm not going to argue that point with you," said the fire chief.
Eichenwald said the fire department's total budget in 2012 was about $8 million, adding "a half a million dollars is a big portion of that $8 million."
"I need to question the wisdom of whoever made those decisions to take a half million dollars out of a fire department budget."
Kudlak said the fire department does not control the money used for wages.
Eichenwald said 2012 was not a good time to withdraw a half million dollars from the fire department's budget, because "its needs are now ever-increasing."
Alluding to center-city redevelopment around the hockey arena, she said the city now has $1 billion worth of new property to defend from fires.
But council member Daryl Hendricks said those new buildings are far more fire resistant, and constructed under tougher fire safety regulations, than the old buildings they replaced.
"That's really not going to create a greater need for fire protection," said Hendricks.
Not enough firefighters?
Said Eichenwald: "We are told time and time again, that our fire department is under-staffed."
During the meeting, Kudlak said the fire department is only one person short of the number of employees it is budgeted to have this year.
Elaborating after the meeting, he said the fire department had 143 people before 36 retired at the end of 2011. He said it now has 122.
The fire chief explained to City Council that an arbitrator reduced the size of the fire department.
O'Connell confirmed the firefighters' union went into arbitration with the city, the arbitrator made a decision "and we play by the rules of what the arbitrator decided."
He added: "We followed exactly what the arbitrator told us to follow. The arbitrator came in and said 'you don't need that staffing level any longer.'"
Kudlak explained that when a contract with the firefighters' union expired in 2011, the matter went to arbitration, with no decision until July 2012.
He said the 36 positions created by retirements remained vacant for seven months of 2012. That July, an arbitrator determined 16 firefighters could be hired.
The chief calculated those 36 vacancies gave the fire department $2.1 million of unpaid permanent wages in 2012.
"That's where that money came from," said Kudlak. "It wasn't taken from our operating budget; it was taken from the wages account."
After the meeting, he explained the $500,000 was transferred back into the general fund and the rest of the money was allocated to pay for overtime, noting there was a lot of overtime in the first seven months of 2012.
"That explanation confuses me even more," said Eichenwald. "Our needs are ever expanding and greater. Am I to understand that the fire department felt themselves so competently staffed that they could return a half million dollars to the general fund to be used for consultants?"
O'Connell asked the chief: "Do you feel the public is as safe now as before the arbitrator's ruling?"
"Responses are the same," said the fire chief. "With less men, of course you work harder."
Firefighters like OT
Hendricks also asked Kudlak if the loss of the $500,000 impacted the fire department's ability to serve the people of Allentown.
The chief said the only impact was firefighters worked more overtime, but maintained the same number of required personnel on each shift.
"We've always had the required amount of personnel on duty."
He explained the department always has firefighters willing to work overtime.
He added: "I'm not a fan of overtime; I'd rather have more bodies. But the bottom line is these men are very happy for the overtime. It never goes untaken. It's something that they look for. If that's taken away from them, I think that's going to disappoint a good number of them."
The fire chief also said paying overtime is less expensive than hiring more firefighters, adding one newly-hired firefighter costs Allentown nearly $100,000, including salary, benefits and pension.
But he noted whether to hire more personnel or keep paying overtime is a decision to be made by the city administration.
"A good number of firefighters depend on that overtime," said the chief. "If we would go 100 percent staffing, that would upset a lot of people."
Money also taken from police budget?
At the June 18 City Council meeting, Eichenwald said Robert Scheirer, the city's former fire chief, told her about the $500,000 transfer before he retired in January.
At that meeting, Eichenwald also claimed "a large amount of money" had been transferred out of the police department's budget by the administration. She wanted to know why it was taken from that budget and how it was used.
But she did not want to discuss that claim Wednesday night.
Eichenwald told Dougherty she wanted to know if there had been any other transfers to pay for consultants.
"Are you talking about the police department?" he asked.
"In general, both in fire and police," she said. "But let's talk about the fire department."
"I want to start with police because, unless you can provide something, I don't know where to begin with that," said Dougherty.
"You didn't provide any specificity as to the police department transfers. Me, my staff and even the controller looked and scoured. We saw no abnormalities in any transfers. So I would need something more specific from you in terms of what you're referring to in the police department."
After the meeting, Eichenwald said she did not want to talk about any transfer of police funds "right now. I can't talk about that yet."
Allentown, PA 18102