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As fire chief retires after salary cut, Lockport looks for part-timer

LOCKPORT – Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite said last week that his last day on the job will be Dec. 11. He is retiring after 34 years in the department, the last 20 as chief.

However, he would not rule out the possibility that he might return as the city’s new part-time fire chief.

“Nobody’s approached me about it,” he said. “Anything’s possible.”

For that to happen, however, all six men on the civil service eligibility list would have to turn down the job, said Mary Pat Holz, city civil service secretary.

Also, the city would have to change the job specifications for fire chief, which assume that the job would be filled by a promotion of someone already on the department’s roster, Holz said.

“We’re not making any assumptions about who would accept (the job),” Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said.

“I think the city’s hanging a few things over his head to keep him on in a part-time capacity to keep deteriorating the department,” Firefighter Kevin W. Pratt, union president of the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association, contended.

The Common Council took some by surprise when it disclosed Nov. 12, just before a public hearing on the 2015 budget, that it had decided to reduce the job of fire chief from full time to half time.

That cut the salary in half – Passuite’s base pay was about $90,000 – but it also might have made the job unattractive to the officers on the eligibility list, any of whom would have to take a substantial pay cut to become chief. Unless, that is, one of them retires and then comes back if the rules are changed on qualifications.

Corporation Counsel John J. Ottaviano said there’s no law that says the fire chief has to be full time, only that there needs to be one.

“Due to the financial constraints of the city, we’re to take some bold steps that no other municipality is taking,” he said.

“It’s a very irresponsible decision,” Pratt said. “The Fire Department is a $3.1 million department in the 2015 budget, the second-most-expensive department. The city keeps making comparisons to Batavia, Tonawanda and North Tonawanda. They all have fire chiefs.”

Passuite said that since the city privatized ambulance service Sept. 15, turning the work over to Twin City Ambulance, his workload has been reduced. “This office is more like a records administration office, really,” he said. “I don’t know what the percentage is, half time or full time or what.”

McCaffrey said each fire platoon has an assistant chief, a captain and a lieutenant. Passuite said, “They also call me in certain circumstances. Most fires, they don’t call me because there’s nothing I would do,” he said. “The incident commander is the guy who’s in charge,” he said.

The top three finishers on the civil service examination for chief were Assistant Chief Michael B. Seeloff, Capt. Thomas E. Lupo and Capt. Patrick K. Brady.

If any or all of them turn down the post, the other names on the list would become eligible for consideration, in order: Assistant Chief Matthew O. Streckewald, Municipal Training Officer Luca C.P. Quagliano and Assistant Chief Patrick F. Costello.

If all six say no, “then you have what’s called ‘recruitment difficulty,’ ” Holz said. The city can hire someone not on the list, but the Fire Board and the city Civil Service Commission would have to change the job specifications.