The Incident At Howe Library

October 31, 2014

Fear, nastiness and dirty tricks sideline public discussion of the Albany City budget

When I was a kid, growing up in a semi-rural town in New York State, I was told by the adults that if you wanted the local volunteer fire department to show up in a timely fashion when your house is burning, then you’d better be on good terms with the fire guys. You’d better buy their raffle tickets every year, and the occasional donation of a case of beer was a good idea. Whatever you do, the elders let me know, you don’t make them angry at you because if you do, when you have to call them, precious minutes will tick by as they take their time on their way to your blazing home.

So I will start this by saying that the City of Albany Fire Department is by far the most efficient and effective fire fighting outfit that I have had the opportunity to witness. Over the years I have had to call the Albany FD several times, including one substantial fire caused by a roofer working on one of my buildings. On that occasion as on others, the Albany FD responded rapidly, worked very professionally and did a completely thorough job. I clutched my head and screamed as they swung axes and tore apart my roofline, but I knew that fire was totally extinguished.

The problems with the Albany FD begin when the fire fighters are not fighting fires. For example, by spreading fear and panic among South End citizens, the fire fighter’s union recently managed to divert public opinion away from the fact that FD personnel are receiving taxpayer money for work that they no longer perform, and FD personnel continue to receive unjustified overtime pay. But what bothers me the most was their cynical manipulation of my neighbors, actions which demonstrated a dangerous contempt for the City of Albany and for those of us who live here.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan Attempts To Start The Budget Presentation Meeting At Howe Library Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan Attempts To Start The Budget Presentation Meeting At Howe Library

This past October 15, City of Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan tried to conduct a presentation of the City budget at Howe Library, the South End’s beautiful “crown jewel” of the library system. This was one of eight presentations given by the mayor in different neighborhoods around the City, which will be capped by a ninth presentation at the Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations (CANA) on November 5 at the main library. This is an important partial fulfillment of the mayor’s pre-election promise to bring transparency to the City budget, which under her predecessors was wrapped in secrecy and hid questionable expenditures.

Of course I had to attend the Howe Library presentation, just to see what would happen. I was well aware that the the fire fighter’s union (officially called the Albany Permanent Professional Firefighter’s Association Local 2007) was up to their old tricks, dealing with impending contract negotiations by mobilizing their personal to publicly act in a aggressively threatening manner toward the City administration. At that point it was beginning to look like their tactics had taken a nasty turn beyond merely harassing City officials, so I knew this public meeting would be a raucous show.

But I was not prepared for this level of rudeness and general bad behavior. I watched as South End residents, whipped into a frenzy of ignorant fear by the fire fighter’s union, shouted down the mayor and refused to show her enough curtesy to let her talk about the budget. And through it all the FD employees stood in the back of the room, smiling smugly, pleased with their handiwork.

Fire Fighters Line The Back Wall Of The Meeting Room, Note The Woman In The Orange And White Smock, Center Right Fire Fighters Line The Back Wall Of The Meeting Room

It was disgusting to watch. There are times when it is appropriate to shout down government officials, to threaten them when they are failing at their duties to the people. This was not one of those times.

To be clear: I was deeply disgusted by both the actions of manipulative fire fighters and by the bad behavior of the South End residents who allowed themselves to be manipulated into acting like spoiled children, as if they were given permission to misbehave. The smirking fire fighters and misbehaving residents treated this meeting like it was a big game. It certainly was not some stupid game, we should all be glad to see the administration attempt to bring transparency to the traditionally secretive City budget.

Most Of Those Present Wanted To Listen Most Of Those Present Wanted To Listen

The majority of citizens present did not disrupt the meeting, but soon the people in the back of the room devolved into crowd frenzy and refused to stop shouting. Occasionally the fire guys would throw in catcalls. I watched several persons of the the type who regularly hang on the edges of the political scene get caught up in the excitement, yelling and jumping around happily without making much sense. The mayor was forced into silence and stood off to one side as several community leaders stood up and attempted to restore order.

The racial aspect must be commented upon. Every single fire fighter in the back of the room was white, almost all suburbanites. Most of the South End residents in the back of the room who disrupted the meeting were black, with one significant exception. Among these folks was a white woman who began disrupting the meeting with catcalls and shouts before the meeting even started. I can’t prove anything, but she looked to me like a classic planted agitator. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her in the future.

Fire Fighters Disrupt The Meeting With A Planned Walkout Fire Fighters Disrupt The Meeting With A Planned Walkout

About ten minutes after the mayor had started speaking, the majority of fire guys present suddenly staged a noisy walkout, obviously planned and obviously meant to show contempt for the City of Albany. The guys who walked out didn’t go very far, upon leaving the Howe Library meeting room they took up position lining the hallway outside the door. Later, when people were leaving after the meeting, the fire guys smirked at us as we passed and said, “Thanks for coming.” As if it was their meeting and their community.

The fire fighter’s union carefully prepared this encounter, it was a fine piece of media and social manipulation. Indeed it was rather scary how effective it was. You couldn’t pay a consultant to do a better job of spreading ignorance and fear. Some of these fire union guys should get jobs working for FOX “News” or for Republican congressional candidates, spreading misinformation about ebola or immigrants or Obamacare. I mean, their manipulations were masterful.

Mayor Sheehan Tries To Continue The Presentation, With Fire Chief Warren Abriel Mayor Sheehan Tries To Continue The Presentation, With Fire Chief Warren Abriel

The first thing the fire fighter’s union guys did, several weeks before the Howe Library meeting, was to feel out the community to see what techniques would work. I saw one of these probes at the October 1st Council of Albany Neighborhoods (CANA) meeting, where a couple of union guys gave a presentation to us neighborhood representatives. They told us the one thing we wanted to hear, that the fire fighter’s union wanted to develop closer ties with the neighborhoods. Naturally we were pleased to hear that.

They then told us some things that were not exactly true, such as that two thirds of the fire fighters live in the City of Albany. I was certainly impressed by that. After the meeting I learned the truth, that less than one quarter of the fire fighters live in our community, but if you add in all the office clerks, janitors and such then the two thirds figure is more or less accurate. Technically not a lie, merely misleading spin.

I should add that I’ve heard that several of the fire stations in the City really are community based, that most of the fire fighters in those stations actually live in the neighborhoods that they service. One of those, I’ve been told, is the firehouse on Delaware Avenue, you know, the lovely ornate building with the beavers on top. But most of the fire guys commute to Albany to work, and after their shifts go back to the suburbs to spend their salaries and pay taxes.

The Wonderful Incredible Delaware Avenue Firehouse The Wonderful Incredible Delaware Avenue Firehouse

The two union guys at CANA mentioned to us that the mayor had proposed eliminating Ladder #1, a fire truck assigned to South Station at Morton Avenue and South Pearl Street. Seeing as I live up the street from South Station I was alarmed at hearing this, and asked for clarification. The guys were visibly pleased by my strong interest, but they were careful to not reveal the whole story about Ladder #1.

Later I was informed that Ladder #1 does not have a regular crew. Rather, it is manned entirely by fire fighters who are receiving overtime pay, 24 hours a day, no matter what time or day of the week they are working! It costs taxpayers an extra $1.2 million per year to pay this overtime. The two union guys at CANA kinda forgot to mention this very important detail.

A reasonable citizen who cheerfully pays taxes may wonder how and why such a ridiculously wasteful overtimed boondoggle came about. About four or five years ago our financially incompetent former mayor Jerry Jennings once again needed to balance the City budget, or at least give the appearance that he was doing so. Thus to save money he cut back the number of personnel in the FD, eliminating about 18 positions.

I recall hearing Jennings explain that he was eliminating those FD positions by attrition, that is, by not laying off anybody, but it was still strange how the fire fighter’s union didn’t raise a big stink at the time. It turns out that the former mayor enshrined this unnecessary overtime in the union contract. This gift from the unknowing taxpayers mollified the rank and file sufficiently, I’ll bet they all fought to get assigned to Ladder #1.

Mayor Sheehan Sidelined At Left As First Ward Common Council Member Dorcey Applyrs Tries To Restore Order Mayor Sheehan Sidelined At Left As First Ward Common Council Member Dorcey Applyrs Tries To Restore Order

Along comes our new mayor Kathy Sheehan, who has been forced to wrestle with the massive budget deficit bequeathed to her by Jerry. Quite naturally Ms. Sheehan wanted to eliminate this waste of money, and quite naturally the FD guys want to keep their free ride on the backs of the taxpayers. What do they care if it rips off the community, most of them don’t live here.

According to Albany Fire Chief Warren Abriel, the department needs those 18 unfilled positions to stay fully staffed. But the sad fact is that with Jerry’s leftover crippling deficit there is no way that the City is going to hire another 18 fire fighters, not this year and probably not soon. Thus the mayor proposed sidelining this prohibitively expensive firetruck to help balance the budget.

Having tested the waters and found their handle, the fire fighter’s union paid for media advertisements that heavily implied that fire service was being curtailed in the South End. Plus the union guys started meeting with South End civic organizations, telling them their lives were in danger because of the mayor. There were a substantial number of people at that Howe Library meeting who seriously believed that the City was planning to close South Station.

South End Firehouse (“South Station”) At South Pearl Street And Morton Avenue South End Firehouse (“South Station”) At South Pearl Street And Morton Avenue

This was all pure horsecrap, but it worked. Many people in the South End still remain deeply suspicious of a City government that until recently followed a policy of neglect and repression of the South End, so they fell for it hook line and stinker. It never ceases to amaze me how easily people are led by advertisements in the corporate media as if those paid for ads were biblical word of law.

When I was questioning the union guys at CANA, I alluded to how until recently they used to do building code inspections. At the time I was puzzled by their reaction, they stared at me for about five seconds and then gave a cautious, noncommittal answer to my query. But in a moment they realized I didn’t know the true story, so they smiled and continued with their bullcrapping.

The true story is that the FD personnel are no longer doing building inspections, but according to their contract they must be paid for doing inspections as long as the current contract is in effect. They are being paid extra for doing nothing extra. A person who is well informed about these matters laid it out for me:

The 2015 City budget lists the "Code Stipend" totaling: $341,000. I believe that amount is divided equally among the firefighters. If the department was fully staffed at 245 firefighters, that would be $1392 per firefighter. Buildings and Regulatory Compliance does the code inspections now. Their eight code inspectors get paid $33,825 apiece or $270,600. So, the firefighters stipend is even more than the code inspectors make in toto. Combined, we are paying $611,600 for code inspections.