WESTFIELD — The City Council approved $150,000 in overtime for Westfield’s Fire Department, and pledged to avert extreme cost-saving measures that firefighters warned would happen if the overtime account runs out, such as closing Fire Station 2 or instituting “brownouts” in coverage.

Fire Chief Patrick Egloff had asked the council to transfer $200,000 from the ambulance fund into the overtime account, a sum identical to the amount the council cut from the Fire Department overtime budget when building the city budget last year.

Councilor Bridget Matthews-Kane, who chairs the council’s Finance Committee, said she wants the council to have some oversight on this budget.

“We really want him to work on bringing down overtime,” she said, adding the fire chief did propose one way to bring it down, in relation to the academy. She said she also offered him a paper on reducing overtime in fire departments, which he did request after the meeting.

“I’m confident he’s going to do it. If you need the money, come back and ask for it. This is our way of being fiscally responsible. We do support you,” Matthews-Kane said to firefighters, many of whom showed up at the Feb. 1 council meeting.

Councilor Rick Sullivan, who also serves on the Finance Committee, added: “$150,000 gives them at least a month, if not two months over. We made it clear if the unforeseen happens and they need to come back because they used up the $150,000 before the end of the fiscal year,” to come back, he said. The fiscal year ends in June.

Westfield Firefighters Local 1111 President Clark Robinson had asked the council to support the full $200,000 request.

“The department has made a conscious effort to reduce the use of overtime,” Robinson said, cautioning that if the city ran out of money to pay for overtime, initial results could include staffing reductions, “brownouts” in coverage, or the closure of Fire Station 2 on Little River Road, which serves the east side of the city.

Robinson said any such closure would have a direct impact on citizens and firefighters, detailing the cost of a delay of just minutes in a medical emergency or fire.

He said Station 2 provides both an ambulance and a fire engine, and the ambulance generates significant revenue for the city, and taking it away would further harm the budget and negatively impact citizens.

“Understand that telling firefighters that the budget is more important than their safety is unacceptable, irresponsible and inappropriate,” Robinson said, and asked the councilors to carefully consider the consequences of not supporting the full request, and prioritize safety of citizens and firefighters.
Councilor James Adams pushed back against Robinson’s argument.

“I’m not sure what message they got. We are funding what you want and more — we’re giving you more than what you need. I’m not sure what the chief said to you,” Adams said to the firefighters.

Adams said the idea that cutting $50,000 would result in shutting down Station 2 was “absurd.”

“And that’s not his call, that’s the [Fire] Commission’s call. The commission would have to determine who shuts down Station 2. For $50,000 — that’s crazy,” he said.

The $150,000 budget transfer passed 9-2, with two councilors absent. Councilor Cindy Harris was one of the two who voted against the reduction.

“I understand what you’re saying, thoroughly, but we wouldn’t have so many firefighters here, if they didn’t disagree with that analysis. I’m going to vote no,” she said.

Councilor Brent Bean, the other “no” vote, had different reasons. Bean said when the council first cut the $200,000 out of what was originally a $400,000 request for overtime, “we said yes, come back, but we said come back with a justification.”

Bean said he was not satisfied with the justification given by the chief to the Finance Committee, on which he serves. “He did nothing — he just came back in front of us and asked for $200,000. I just think this chief doesn’t understand that this issue is real. All he could say to do is to close Station 2. Over my dead body will Station 2 be closed, plain and simple.”

Councilor Ralph Figy also spoke up, saying he was disappointed with the fire chief. He said he did not come back with any examples of ways to control overtime, even though the union president indicated that some measures have been utilized.
Councilor Karen Fanion said she would support the reduced appropriation.

“I appreciate everything you do for the city of Westfield,” she said to the firefighters in the room. “I will support this motion. As Councilor Sullivan said, if you do need more money, I will vote for more money.”