Ogdensburg City Council will be presented with 2 resolutions (click here to read resolutions) on Monday evening that will either end the 2 year old heavily debated topic of minimum staffing for the Fire Department, or to maintain the current course of action, set by Mayor Jeffrey Skelly, Councilor John Rishe, Councilor Steven Fisher and Councilor William Dillabough, that involves defending the City against sections of the bargaining unit agreement with International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) Local 1799 that are illegal and irresponsibly negotiated by the previous city council and financially crippling to the overall City Budget, to include authorizing the City Labor Attorney to appeal to the NYS Court of Appeals.
Recently Councilor John Rishe broke from what has been the majority city council and voted with minority City Councilors Michael Powers, Dan Skamperle and Nicole Kennedy to solidly reject initiatives put forth by City Manager Stephen Jellie that would study new organizational structures and consolidation of Police and Fire services provided in the City. The City has known for many years that it cannot afford to maintain the past and current organizational models for providing public safety services, and in the case of law enforcement, Ogdensburg residents pay for police services to three different levels of government. In November 2020, the Majority City Council instructed City Manager Stephen Jellie to defend the City against the current IAFF contract with the City that was forced upon taxpayers by the previous city council, including current members Powers, Skamperle and Kennedy, immediately following the staggering 2019 election defeat of former Mayor Wayne Ashley, Councilor David Price, and Councilor Jennifer Stevenson. Since that time, the City has made substantial progress in reducing the size and structure of the fire department, almost entirely through attrition and saving approximately $1.5 Million annually in taxpayer funds. City Manager Stephen Jellie was seeking to implement the final phase of the transition which was to study and then implement new long term organizational structures that would meet mission requirements and assist in maintaining a much lower property tax rate; however it now appears a majority of city council will not support continuing this effort.
City Council must make the final policy decision on the overall size, structure and daily strength of the fire department; the City Manager and Fire Chief execute those policy decisions. It makes little fiscal, legal or operational strategic sense to continue battling to restore City control to the fire department staffing levels if the majority city council favors adhering to the costly current bargaining unit agreement. It will also be near impossible for the City to maintain the 20% property tax reduction, demanded by Councilor Rishe, mainly due to the reductions in Police and Fire staffing; all initiatives that were supported by Mayor Skelly, Councilor Rishe, Councilor Fisher and Councilor Dillabough and rejected by Council Powers, Councilor Skamperle and Councilor Kennedy. The City Manager and City Staff must have clear policy direction from City Council.
Similar decisions on total organizational and daily minimum staffing for the Ogdensburg Police Department will be addressed at the next regular meeting of the City Council. The current daily minimum staffing of 2 personnel in the police department is not sustainable with the overall number of police officers assigned and 4 currently not eligible to cover patrol operations. Further, it is the opinion of the City Manager that operating with just 2 officers on a shift, especially the night shift, is not effective for the long term and provides greater than acceptable risk to officer safety. Again, City Council must make the policy decisions and task the City Manager and Police Chief with execution.
Ogdensburg City Councils have put off hard decisions for decades; the record is firm on that point. What is also firm is there is no time left to prolong making hard financial decisions that won’t be popular with everyone. I am the second consecutive City Manager to warn City Council that change must be studied, analyzed and implemented or the City will lose all the financial stability gains that have been made the previous 2 years and face another serious financial crisis within 3 years.