There’s a problem in the Buffalo Fire Department that requires strong, creative action by Mayor Byron W. Brown. The problem isn’t simply runaway overtime, though that is an issue city administrators – and taxpayers – are duty-bound to address. It’s also the lack of consistent capable leadership that Brown has yet to produce in this critical city department.
The turmoil at the top of the Fire Department’s organizational chart has been disruptive. In addition to depriving the department of focused leadership, it has helped to produce a sharp spike in overtime. With a month left in the city’s fiscal year, overtime has already reached $11.3 million, 20 percent more than last year, according to Buffalo Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder.
Some – and maybe much – of this may be structural. With overtime, firefighters can earn more than a deputy commissioner and accrue more vacation, sick and personal time, to boot. What is more, if overtime diminishes, as city leaders expect, some firefighters may choose to retire, while fully paid health care remains a benefit. That creates pressure for additional overtime.
Turnover at the top has been a problem in the Fire Department since Brown was first elected in 2006. He appointed Michael S. Lombardo as commissioner that year along with three deputies: Patrick T. Lewis, Garnell M. Smith and Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. Since then no more than two of the deputy positions have been filled at any one time, said Patrick Curry, a top aide to the comptroller.
In 2009, Brown pushed Lombardo out and the following year, appointed Whitfield to the position. Whitfield resigned in 2017 – a good amount of time – and was succeeded by Vincent V. Muscarella, who has been on leave since March 29 because of the recurrence of an old on-duty injury. He is out indefinitely.
Johnathan T. Eaton, a deputy commissioner, was filling in for Muscarella until May 1, when he went back to active duty as a captain.
There is more, but that’s the trend: For a variety of reasons, some of them obviously unavoidable, top positions in the department are frequently unfilled. It makes strong management impossible and helps to create an unnecessary burden on taxpayers.
The contrast to the Police Department offers a perspective. Brown appointed Daniel Derenda as police commissioner in 2010. Derenda stayed in the job until he retired last year, performing well for both the department and the city, and doing so at an especially challenging time in policing.
Why that is not happening in the fire department is a puzzle. Some of, no doubt is because “circumstances change,” as noted by Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer who also serves on a Brown administration finance subcommittee. For example, he said, some people are near retirement – a fact that only become more challenging as more and more baby boomers decide to hang it up.
Regardless, it’s past time to deal with these issues. In part, it’s a matter of finding the right people, but the money problem is significant. Leadership positions have to pay enough to attract good people; it’s hard to blame someone for not leaping at a promotion that adds significant responsibilities and ends up paying less.
That, of course, means increasing expenses, never a popular decision in this overtaxed state. But the fire department is crucial to the city’s safety. If pay is a problem in securing and keeping high quality leadership, then it is Brown’s duty to find a solution.
The same goes for the overtime issue. That may soon be ameliorated by plans to bring the depleted ranks of firefighters up to scratch. That should begin this month, when 68 candidates are expected to graduate from the academy. That may create more retirements as overtime diminishes, but there’s a solution to that, too. The city needs to get on it.