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Editorial: A good hire at the fire department

Buffalo’s new fire commissioner has a lot on his plate and it goes beyond making sure Buffalo doesn’t burn. He is heading a department whose cost overruns and leadership problems are the predictable consequences of pension politics and illogical pay scales. He has the ability to make a difference, but he can’t fix it all on his own.

William Renaldo was appointed commissioner this week, marking a return to duty for the 30-year veteran who retired as a battalion chief six years ago. Renaldo, 60, succeeds Vincent Muscarella, who was appointed commissioner earlier this year but resigned Monday. Muscarella, who suffered a recurrence of an on-duty injury he suffered before becoming commissioner, has been out since late March. He reverts to the position of captain.

Renaldo takes the reins of a department with wildly excessive overtime costs and, until late last week, without either of its two allotted deputy commissioners. The problems are knotted together.

The good news is that deputy commissioners are being appointed. The bad news is that, unless they are passionately committed to their new jobs, there is a significant risk they won’t last: As matters stand, they could make more money in lower-ranked positions.

It’s one of the inanities of pay scales in the fire department. Although deputy commissioner positions appear to pay well – former Deputy Commissioner Johnathan T. Eaton was making $115,743 annually – it’s not enough. Firefighters can earn more than that with overtime while also accruing more vacation, sick and personal time. The equation is fatally unbalanced. How do you blame someone for preferring a job that pays more while producing less stress?

Overtime may be an easier problem to solve, but urgent nonetheless. The department just hired 53 recent graduates of the Fire Training Academy. That brings staffing up to 652 members and there are plans to hire more. That’s important, with overtime costs hitting $11.3 million – 20 percent higher than last year. The fiscal year ends on Saturday.

Mayor Byron W. Brown’s decision to bring Renaldo back bodes well. The new commissioner is highly trained and experienced and, with an annual pension of $79,252, it seems unlikely that he needs the money. In fact, he is not expecting to receive both his full pension and full salary. That suggests that he is coming back for the best of reasons: to make a difference. It’s what the fire department needs.

He’ll need help from Brown and the Common Council. Both must take a deep breath and resolve to fix a pay structure that works against the public’s interest in securing consistent, effective leadership in the Fire Department. That won’t be an easy sell in a poor city and a high-tax state. But it’s necessary. In his fourth term, and with broad support in the community, Brown should lead this effort.

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