The 600-member Buffalo Fire Department has been operating without a commissioner or deputy commissioner since the beginning of May, part of a pattern of continuing turnover in the department’s top positions since Mayor Byron W. Brown took office in 2006.
The leadership void is “devastating,” said a source within the department. And city Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder says it means there is no one to manage the department's increasing overtime costs, which already have reached $11.3 million with a month to go in the fiscal year.
Brown is interviewing people to fill at least two deputy commissioner positions, city officials said, while the day-to-day operations of fighting fires and responding to emergency medical calls continue under the direction of five division chiefs.
“Operationally, nothing is lacking,” said Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer, who serves on a Brown administration finance subcommittee.
Fire Commissioner Vincent V. Muscarella, who became a Buffalo firefighter in 1996, has been out since March 29 because of the recurrence of an on-duty injury sustained before he became commissioner this past January, city officials said. Muscarella, whose commissioner salary is $131,575, is out indefinitely under a city policy that includes monthly appointments with occupational health specialists, officials said.
A source within the department disputes the city’s time line and says Muscarella, 45, has not been functioning as commissioner since January. City officials insist that is not true.
Meanwhile, former Deputy Commissioner Johnathan T. Eaton, who had been filling in for Muscarella as part of his deputy responsibilities, went back to active duty as a captain May 1 based on a personal decision, city officials said. As deputy commissioner, the 43-year-old Eaton was making $115,743 annually. His base salary as captain is $82,118.
The absence of top leaders on a daily basis is taking its toll, said the source within the department.
“Now that (there is) no commissioner or anyone at headquarters, it’s a mess,” the source said. “It’s a disaster.”
The lack of top leadership also means there is no one to help curtail the escalating overtime expenses in the department, Schroeder said.
“Right now, the city’s second-largest department has no one in its top four leadership positions. Overtime costs in the Fire Department have increased 20 percent since last year, and our audits have shown that civilian employees – positions like janitors, clerks and dispatchers, which are easier to fill – earn more overtime on average than firefighters,” said Schroeder.
“You would expect there to be some urgency to remedy this situation, but unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any. In the meantime, the taxpayers foot the bill for increased overtime, with nobody in place to manage those costs,” said Schroeder, adding that Fire Department overtime has already exceeded $11 million with a month to go in the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Overtime costs in the department have increased over the years. In the 2016-17 fiscal year, overtime costs were $9.9 million, and in the 2015-16 fiscal year it was $8.2 million, according to the comptroller's office.
Fire union officials declined to comment.
Schroeder’s assessment is not true, according to the Brown administration, which pointed to 60 firefighters who were promoted to various ranks on Feb. 5. The promotions help eliminate overtime at the higher ranks, they said. Also, on June 20, 60 recruits will graduate the fire academy, which will further help reduce overtime, officials said. So will an academy class of 64 recruits who are anticipated to start work no later than Labor Day as a result of a firefighter exam that was administered May 1, Helfer said.
“The administration is doing a lot of things to curtail overtime,” said Helfer, adding that he is “constantly engaging” with the Fire Department on staffing and budgetary needs as part of his position as co-chairman of the mayor’s fiscal subcabinet.
Currently, Brown is interviewing for the position of deputy commissioner of operations and for a deputy commissioner of administration. The third deputy commissioner position will be addressed after the first two deputy commissioners are appointed, city officials said.
In 2006, Brown appointed Michael S. Lombardo and three deputies: Patrick T. Lewis, Garnell M. Smith and Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., said Patrick Curry, a top aide to the comptroller.
Since then, no more than two of the deputy positions have been filled at any one time, Curry said . Smith retired in 2008 and Lewis retired in 2010, city officials said.
Also in 2010, Whitfield was appointed commissioner to replace Lombardo, whom Brown forced to resign as commissioner in 2009. At the time, Lombardo said Brown wanted to take the department in a “different direction.” However, in 2014, then-First Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey said Lombardo left because of overtime costs as he also criticized Whitfield on the same issue.
One of Whitfield’s two deputies, Vincent R. Gugliuzza, also was forced out in 2014 after four years, with overtime costs again cited as one of the reasons. Kevin D. Peterson was appointed to replace him. Gugliuzza retired as a firefighter in 2015, city officials said.
Joseph J. Tomizzi, Whitfield's other deputy commissioner, resigned from the post in November 2015 and reverted to firefighter. And in early 2016 Peterson also resigned from the deputy post and dropped back into the union ranks as he prepared to retire from the department later that year.
In 2016, Brown brought on Eaton and Muscarella as deputy commissioners under Whitfield, who resigned in 2017. Since then, Eaton and Muscarella had alternated managing the department until Muscarella became commissioner last January.
So why is there so much leadership turnover in the Fire Department?
“Circumstances change, and in a lot of cases, they’re near retirement,” Helfer said.
Sources also say some of the people in the commissioner and deputy commissioner positions revert to active duty for financial reasons, because they can then earn overtime and also get more vacation, sick and personal time.