The New York Times

December 8, 2002

Official Says Plans to Close Firehouses Must Proceed


T he city will have to go ahead with plans to close several firehouses, Deputy Mayor Marc V. Shaw said yesterday, calling an agreement to set up a commission to study the issue a "political punt."

Mr. Shaw, second-in-command in the Bloomberg administration, also said that the Fire Department was rife with inefficiency and that its culture and that of the city's political establishment would have to change if an enduring remedy for many of its fiscal problems were to be found.

As an example, Mr. Shaw said that the administration's plan to close eight firehouses had been met with so much political opposition that it had to be dropped temporarily not long after it was announced, even though government officials realized the closings would be necessary.

"We punted on it at the end of the day," he said. "While we all agree we're still going to have to do it, we are going to set up a blue-ribbon panel to figure out exactly which ones to do to make sure that we do the right thing here. But the truth is that it was also a political punt."

Mr. Shaw, normally a man of very few words, made his comments at a session on restructuring government at the annual budget conference of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan research group supported by businesses. Although most public figures have shied away from criticizing the city's uniformed departments in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in which 343 city firefighters died, Mr. Shaw seemed to come after both the Fire and Police Departments with guns blazing yesterday.

"The fire department is a place where every efficiency that's been done I think in the last 20, 30 years has been a total failure," he said. "In response to past failures, the prior administration decided, `Well, since we can't get these guys to be any more productive in fighting fires, since they only fight fires 5 percent of the time — they're hanging around doing nothing the other 95 percent of the time — let's find other things for them to do,' and came up with the idea of trying to merge Emergency Services into the Fire Department. So far that has been a dismal failure in terms of actually producing results of efficiencies that are saving anybody money."

A spokesman for the Fire Department, Francis X. Gribbon, said last night that "members of the department are the best at what they do — saving lives and property. We'll continue to do that while working to find ways to do more with less, and do our share to help the city during these tough fiscal times."

A call to the firefighters' union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association, was not returned.

Mr. Shaw also had several blunt words for the police union. Apparently still stung by a state arbitration panel's decision not to require the police to work more — and shorter — days each year, Mr. Shaw put the blame for what the administration sees as inefficiency in the Police Department squarely on the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

"The P.B.A. made a decision that, `We don't want to be productive in New York City right now,' " he said.

Mr. Shaw, seated next to Lillian Roberts, whose municipal workers' union, District Council 37, has recently begun contract talks with the Bloomberg administration, added that negotiators for the city would start discussions with "other unions and hopefully come back to the P.B.A. when they're more rational."

Through a spokesman, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, defended his objection to the extra tours of duty the city had sought from the police. "He's just coming from a Christmas party for the widows and children of 150 police officers killed in the line of duty," the spokesman, Joseph Mancini, said of Mr. Lynch. "His objection to the 10 extra tours was not only because he objects to keeping police officers away from their families, who they already don't see enough, 10 extra times a year, but also putting them in harm's way another 10 times a year."

Mr. Lynch also "would prefer to negotiate these matters at the bargaining table and not in the press," Mr. Mancini said.

Mr. Shaw's comments echoed those made by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the keynote speaker at the conference, held at Harold Pratt House, the Upper East Side home to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kicking off a day devoted to airing possible solutions to the city's fiscal crisis, Mr. Bloomberg, who left before Mr. Shaw made his comments, said that if the P.B.A. had agreed to the shorter work day, the city could have saved $60 million, but that the union had been "unwilling to change the work rules one iota."

But Mr. Bloomberg, who began his remarks with the tale of a woman who had called his home about 7:00 that morning to complain about the public school her child attends, had high praise for at least one of the suggestions made by the conference's organizers. One of five money-saving proposals presented by Diana Fortuna, the commission's president, suggested restructuring the special education system by moving students to less restrictive settings like regular classrooms; reducing placements in special education by offering more preventative services; and simplifying the way support services are administered.

"At a time of fiscal urgency for a system to both fail students and be excessive in costs is intolerable," Mr. Bloomberg said. Joel Klein, the schools chancellor, "is working on exactly this, addressing special education and other problems in the public school system."

Merryl H. Tisch, a commission trustee who serves on the State Board of Regents, said that the state was working with the city's Department of Education to develop a proposal to simplify the regulations and get better results for the dollars spent.