I-Team 10: Firefighter pay

Posted at: 07/17/2013 6:36 AM
Updated at: 07/17/2013 6:22 PM
By: Brett Davidsen

Your tax dollars are used to pay the salaries of firefighters and while no one would ever complain about that given the risks, I-Team 10 looked into firefighter pay across Monroe County and one local district caught our attention.

I-Team 10 received a lot of feedback already about this story from viewers who believe that when it comes to firefighter's salaries, we shouldn't even be looking at how their tax dollars are spent. It's a dangerous job and firefighters give up their weekends and holidays when the alarm sounds. But in Henrietta, the pay appears to skew much higher than other local fire districts.

Henrietta firefighters respond to more than 4,000 calls per year for vehicle crashes, home alarms, and, of course, dangerous house fires.

Roger Watson said, "A lot of those guys go on medical calls so they're a lot of times first on the scene for medical calls, they beat the ambulance there. They got to know what they're doing."

Taxpayers here may believe they're the best in Monroe County. They also appear to be among the best paid.

Recently, I-Team 10 began an analysis of fire district salaries in Monroe County using the website, seethroughny.net. When we got to the numbers in Henrietta, this is what we discovered. Of the 35 paid firefighters, 28 made at least $90,000 last year, that includes salary, overtime and benefits.

News10NBC showed the numbers to Henrietta residents.

Deborah Hymes said, "I would have never thought they made that much, that's high.”

Vanessa Loftus said, “It's a lot, but I think that it's an important job.”

Watson said, “They're higher that I would have guessed.”

Gillian Dalberth said, “I think that's good. They risk their lives every day. So I think that's good. I'm glad to see that."

It's true they put their lives on the line, in any kind of weather, to save us and our homes.  But how do these numbers stack up against other firefighter salaries? I-Team 10 compared them to other local fire districts with similar sized paid staffs. The North Greece Fire District has 34 career firefighters, five made more than $90,000. In Brighton, there are 32 paid firefighters, only the chief made above $90,000.

Henrietta Fire Chief James Comstock says the Henrietta base salaries are in line with other districts. The numbers skew higher because of overtime.

Chief James Comstock said, "We're staffed really at the bare minimum. So if we have a firefighter off, we have to bring on people on overtime."

The district paid almost $700,000 in overtime last year to firefighters and officers.

Chief Comstock said, "We could eliminate overtime by hiring some additional people, but we have sat down and looked at the numbers and it would actually cost the taxpayers more money if we hired more people."

I-Team 10's Brett Davidsen asked, “How is it that similar sized districts like North Greece or Brighton, similar sized staffs, don't have the same overtime issues? Their pay seems to be considerably less?”
Chief Comstock said, "Some departments, as a means of operations, feel it's ok to close a station. We never felt that was operationally a good thing for the community."

The fire district covers all of Henrietta, but operates independently of the town. It's run by five commissioners elected by residents. They set the policies, determine the budget and levy the taxes on property owners.

If Henrietta taxpayers are in any way upset with the amount they're paying for fire protection, it's not reflected at the voting booth. In the last fire commissioners election in December, just 268 people, or one percent of the registered voters, cast ballots.

Tim Hoefer is Director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a watchdog group that sponsors the See Through NY website.

Hoefer said, "The information is out there. Whether or not people or taxpayers pay attention to it, I think that's kind of a different story."

The chief says if taxpayers are paying attention, they'll be pleased with what they're getting.  

Chief Comstock said, "What we try to do is provide a good service to the citizens of Henrietta. When they call us, we respond and we try to give everybody the same quality service throughout the town."

Although the town has no say in the fire district's budget, I-Team 10 attempted to speak with town leaders to gage their feelings.  The supervisor and town board members all declined to comment except for Councilman William Mulligan who told us over the phone that “they're very well paid. They also received the best benefits around, and it would be an improvement to see it in line with what the firefighters make in other districts. At the same time, there are sometimes major risks and they are trying to protect the residents.”

So are Henrietta taxpayers paying too much for their firefighters? That's really up to voters there to decide. If you're interested in seeing what firefighters in your town are earning, click here.