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Council Takes on Role as Mediator of Haverhill Fire Department and Mayor Dispute Over Staffing

The Haverhill City Council has found itself thrust into the role of mediator in an ongoing dispute between Mayor James J. Fiorentini and the Haverhill Fire Department.

That dispute comes down to a disagreement over how many firefighters are needed to provide adequate protection and how much money adding extra personnel will cost.

Haverhill Firefighters Local 1011 President Tim Carroll said the city is currently understaffed according to National Fire Protection Association standards. The union seeks to add two new firefighters per shift for a total of eight. He explained an extra firefighter in two of the trucks improves their ability to protect the city. The starting salary for a new firefighter in Haverhill is about $47,000.

The mayor disputed the claim, saying he is skeptical of figures provided by the union rather than the city’s finance department. The mayor added he is not convinced additional personnel provide better service, noting a nationwide drop in fires stemming from newer building codes.

“I think it leaves out a number of critical factors. Do we need this? How important is it” What are the trade-offs? What are other communities doing? What is the impact to the average taxpayer? And, is there another way to get there? We want to know all of those things before we embark down this road,” he said.

The mayor said the matter should be discussed during budget deliberations in the spring so that all costs, including school needs, are weighed in context. He went on to say the figures presented by the union account only for one year, but that over five years would cost taxpayers an additional $610,000. He said that figure is dwarfed, however, by the cost of their ultimate goal, which is to have four persons on every truck.

“To get to their ultimate goal, where they say they want to go, the ultimate cost is $3.6 million,” Fiorentini charged.

Haverhill firefighter and IT Coordinator Ryan Fairbanks disputed the mayor’s calculations. “That number is totally illegitimate just on the fact that our current budget is only $10 million and we have 96 firefighters on the department,” he said.

With both sides clearly far apart, Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan injected some homespun philosophy to try bringing them together.

“My parents used to tell me there are three sides to every story. There’s one, then the other and somewhere in the middle, there’s the truth. I hate to see it when the fire or police departments get pitted against other departments and it’s sad that we politicize this when we just need to all get together and figure out what we really need to do in the City of Haverhill to provide superior firefighting services. We need to get to it and I’m tired of everybody coming before us and never getting anything done,” he said.

Councilor Melissa J. Lewandowski suggested both sides sit down together within the next three weeks and find a mutually agreeable organization to conduct a study on the matter and report back to the Council before budget meetings begin.

It was clear, however, that motion did not have much traction when the mayor stated he would not be willing to give the firefighter’s union veto power over which company would conduct the study. Carroll said the union is willing to put $50,000 of its own money into hiring a consultant, but insisted members would want a say in who was selected.

As a result, Councilor John A. Michitson added an amendment to the motion to have a meeting of the City Council Public Safety Committee within a month to review both sides of the issue.

That motion was approved by a unanimous 9-0 vote.

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