By Adam Federman, VTDigger
RUTLAND — Fire Chief Michael Jones had another shot to convince rank and file firefighters that a proposed restructuring of the department will not lead to the reduction of active duty staff. Jones met with the union’s executive board Friday, Jan. 13, and presented his plan for adding two administrative positions without cutting back on the current number of seven firefighters per shift. “The chief has reached out to the union,” said Seth Bride, president of Local 2323 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, on Thursday. “We’re meeting with him tomorrow to discuss his plan and address our concerns.” The chief’s diplomacy comes against the backdrop of a standoff between Mayor Chris Louras and the Board of Aldermen over the Fire Department budget. At their last meeting of 2016 in December, the board unanimously rejected the mayor’s proposed fire budget. That plan would have reduced the department’s salary line by $36,000 while increasing the overall department budget 2.1 percent, or $74,000. The decrease in the salary line was tied to a restructuring plan the mayor floated that would cut by one the number of firefighters on each shift and create two new administrative positions. The firefighter’s union has lobbied against the plan and, soon after some of the details were made public, commissioned a study to evaluate the department’s staffing levels. According to a GIS analysis conducted by the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Rutland City Fire Department does not currently meet nationally recognized standards. Those call for each engine to have a minimum of four firefighters on board. The department has three engines: a main attack engine, a hydrant truck, and a combined engine and ladder truck known as a quint. In addition to serving the city, the department has a contract with the town of Mendon. According to the report, which was distributed to board members on the morning of the Dec. 20 budget vote, even with seven active duty firefighters per shift the engines are understaffed. “The current staffing design of the department is inconsistent with national performance standards for response to fire,” the report concluded. “We aren’t asking the Board of Aldermen or the mayor or city to add firefighters to meet that standard,” said Bride, “but we’re asking for them not to drop us any lower than what we have now.”
Chief Jones said it was never his intention to reduce staffing levels and that there is enough money in the mayor’s proposed budget to maintain current response levels and hire an assistant chief and a fire prevention officer. Last week Jones presented a version of that plan to board members Dave Allaire and Sharon Davis. Afterward, he sent a detailed message to the mayor outlining the proposal. “My stance is I’ve heard the message that you want seven per shift,” said Jones, referring to the union. “And I have no ax to grind on staffing.”
The board already violated the city charter by not approving a fully funded budget by Dec. 31 and has only one more meeting scheduled this month, on Tuesday, Jan. 17. The city attorney warned the board against such a course of action but also told members they could “potentially cure that violation and substantially comply with the charter by approving a budget by the deadline to warn the annual city meeting.” That deadline is Jan. 30.