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Brooks criticizes mayor on fire station

Date: 10/27/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

CHICOPEE -- With the last few days of the campaign looming, mayoral challenger and City Council Vice President Shane Brooks criticized Mayor Michael Bissonnette on the lack of a fire engine at the newly renovated Aldenville fire station.

Brooks said the station doesn't house a fire engine or a team of firefighters, but instead just an ambulance. He charged the people in the Aldenville area are no safer now than when the station was closed.

He promised to fully staff the station if he was elected.

The renovations of the station were over budget and took longer than planned as well, Brooks asserted. It was supposed to have been completed for $220,000.

"It's three years late and three times that amount," Brooks said.

Bissonnette told Reminder Publications the renovations actually came in at a final cost of about $40,000 less than originally planned. He did admit the job took longer, but that was because Bissonnette wanted to use Community Development Block Grant funds for the project rather than tax dollars. To do so, he had to settle the issues of the previous mayoral administration not using those federal dollars correctly.

He said the fire engine assigned to the Aldenville station had been moved to another station to replace one that was out of commission. He said the city bought and paid for a replacement fire truck.

Bissonnette said the issue with fully using the station wasn't about equipment -- it's about the cost of hiring additional firefighters. To properly staff the station, the city would have to hire an additional 10 firefighters, which Bissonnette said the city couldn't afford at this time.

He noted that before the era of Proposition 2 1/2, the city employed 172 firefighters. With the erosion of budget cutting, the city now has a complement of 142 fire personnel.

Bissonnette contended that with two ambulances now in Aldenville, "that is an improvement to public safety."

Brooks also said that Bissonnette had taken an "irresponsible action with the taxpayer's money" by signing a contract with the firefighters union that guaranteed overtime. He said he didn't blame union members for seeking the provision, but added he had never seen a municipal contract with an agreement like that.

In the overtime section of the contract, aside from clauses defining what overtime is and how the pay should be determined, the contract reads, "To the extent reasonably possible, overtime opportunities shall be equitably distributed among eligible employees. The parties agree that fire members and officers being offered a minimum of five overtimes tours per calendar year shall be fair and reasonable provided that the tours are offered exclusive of Christmas Eve, Christmas day and/or Thanksgiving and with 24 hours notice to the employee. In the event such tours are not offered, the parties agree that the city shall pay the minimum amount for overtime tours (10 hour tour) not offered to each member."

Bissonnette said Brook's concern was "really a red herring." He said the language was put into the contract in action to a grievance signed by every member of the union. The clause is designed to make sure every firefighter has an opportunity for overtime and to prevent any chief from "playing favorites."

As far as being irresponsible with the taxpayer's money, Bissonette said he would trust the judgement of the bond rating firms of Standard & Poor's and Moody's, which have given the city the best bonding rating in its history under his adminsitration.