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Newport Firefighters Express Concern About Staffing

The union representing Newport firefighters is upset about the staffing level in the department.

According to Jake Silvati, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 45, there should be 36 firefighters on staff. Currently, there are 34. The city's budget, adopted over the summer, calls for 33.

Additionally, Local 45 is concerned about the potential closure of one of the city's two firehouses.

Silvati said that a temporary memorandum of understanding signed by the union and the city was reached in February, but expired in July. Currently, there is no working agreement, MOU, or formal contract.

"The city manager refused to sign an extension or any other type of MOU at which time they unilaterally reduced our staffing which we feel is a violation of our contract and a major safety concern because we don't know how far they're going to go," Silvati said.

Silvati explained that the department should have twelve firefighters on duty each day, and right now there are only eleven. "We should have on our downtown engine, four firefighters, and with four firefighters being on that engine it provides a better safety factor for the community," Silvati said. "It's reduced to three instead of four. We have operated that way since February, and we understand that it is not the safest way of doing things."

City Manager Tom Fromme said the city is facing financial difficulties, which Silvati said he understands.

"They were authorized at thirty-six originally, and we did the budget at thirty-three," Fromme said. "I was looking at potential retirements and not filling those (three) positions through attrition."

Fromme said the department, at 34 employees, is one over budget. "It's a conscious decision between myself and the board (of commissioners). We really don't want to lay anyone off," Fromme said. "Everyone has families and bills to pay so as a calculated risk, we went ahead with the personnel we had without any layoffs."

Fromme blamed the city's increasing pension costs, worsened, he said, by recent legislation in Frankfort forcing Kentucky cities to pay more each year towards the state's ailing retirement system for public employees. A recently approved property tax increase in the city will generate only $100,000, Fromme said, barely enough to pay for one firefighter, he said.

The city operates two firehouses, one in the municipal building at 10th and Monmouth streets, and another in the south end of the city on Main Street. The South Newport Fire Station could be closed. 

"We don't want to see anything close," said Fromme, who offered a reminder that he was a police officer and the city's police chief before becoming city manager, arguing that he understands the perspective of first responders. "We provide a variety of services and it gets down to what money we have and how it's allocated. We still have other obligations like road work and potholes and police runs, code enforcement, and everything else.

"But the way the pension increases are going up, it's outpacing our revenue."

Fromme also said that the South Newport firehouse isn't as busy as it once was since the closure of the former Baptist Home, which served elderly residents and which is now being converted to condos. Most of the calls, Fromme said, were for EMS services, not fires.

Silvati agrees that the pension issue, which he called "a manufactured crisis created by Governor Bevin," is a strain on the city's finances. "We understand that and we see that with the increased retirement contributions the city has to come up with and they have no way of raising revenue," Silvati said. But, he said, the city is reacting only towards the fire department. "We are seeing cuts and other departments are hiring throughout the city."

Fromme said other departments have seen cuts in the past when the fire department did not.

In the meantime, Local 45 has filed a grievance with the state Labor Cabinet citing unfair labor practices after the city commission in August denied a city-level grievance.

"They have a duty to negotiate and they have refused to do so," Silvati said.

Fromme said his door is always open.

Silvati, however, said talks are currently at a standstill. "We are waiting on the state labor board to get back with us," he said.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

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