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.”