Staten Island Advance
August 17, 2002

Can’t buy groceries with a pat on back’

Thousands of cops, firefighters crowd into Times Square to appeal to public for better pay

By Reginald Patrick

Thousands of off-duty police officers and firefighters from all over the city crowded into Times Square yesterday in the sweltering heat to demand better pay.

They based their case on well-known realities in New York City: The record reduction in crime and the well-documented heroics displayed by emergency response workers on Sept. 11 and in the subsequent recovery efforts at Ground Zero.

“Everybody pats us on the back and calls us heroes,” said Firefighter Robert Moran of Queens, the union delegate at Ladder Co. 23 in Harlem. “And we get all the accolades in the world when they’re lowering us into the ground. But you can’t buy groceries or pay the mortgage with a pat on the back. What I want is a living wage. A wage I can get while I’m living. Elvage Jackson of Stapleton, a seven-year Fire Department veteran working out of Engine Co. 211 in Brooklyn, said the union is not looking for anything extraordinary.

“They use every excuse in the book not to give us an adequate wage,” Jackson said. “Did you know that right now a probationary firefighter takes home around $350 a week? You believe that? If he’s got a wife and two kids, he’s going to need a second job just to pay the bills.”

Veteran Staten Island cop Rob Reid, who’s been on the force 11 years, said he “always thought the pay on a job should reflect the risks that job posed.”

“Shouldn’t we get a paycheck that at least allows us to live decently? Particularly considering what everybody recognizes we’ve done for the city,” he said, mopping the sweat from his face.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), which represents cops is up in arms over reports a state arbitration panel is prepared to sign off on a two-year contract providing two annual increases of 5 percent each – and requiring that cops work 10 additional tours each year.

The PBA is asking for a 23-percent hike over two years.

“If you do the math on this contract offer, it actually amounts to a pay cut,” complained one Staten Island cop, who declined to give his name. “This piddling increase is eaten up by the added hours you’ve got to work. That’s a giveback. This is why cops have to work two jobs to make ends meet.”

For years, this particular officer said, he’s been forced to moonlight as a security guard.

The starting salary for New York City cops - $31,305 – falls short of that in other cities. Rookies in Seattle, for example get $46,146. Probationary firefighters in New York City come on the job for $32,724.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has consistently said he would like to pay cops and firefighters more, but is hampered by a $5 billion hole in the city budget.

Yesterday’s police-fire rally, which slowed traffic on Broadway between 34th and 42nd streets, was aimed at forcing City Hall to find a way to come up with the money, possibly through higher money, possibly through higher business taxes or federal or state sources. The recent contract with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), a 23-percent wage hike, was partly underwritten by state funding.

Speaker after speaker at the rally – which drew some 15,000 off-duty firefighters and cops, according to PBA estimates – emphasized that New York City’s fledging recovery, including the mini-building boom and the increase in jobs, is a direct result of the improved social climate created by a crime-busting police force and extraordinarily skilled firefighters force.

“Ten years ago Times Square and many other parts of this city were plagued by rapes and robberies, innocent people were being victimized,” said Rep. Vito Fossella (R-Staten Island).

“No one deserves more credit for this city’s turnaround than the men and women of the Police Department. Just look around at the renaissance in Times Square, the investment, the new jobs. That would not have happened if the city were not safe again.”

The only “stain on the city” at this point, Fossella continued, “is the fact that our police officers are still not paid what they should be. For me, the number-one priority of government is to protect innocent people and we need to compensate the people who put their lives on the line to protect us.”

The issue of higher pay for cops is “going to have to be addressed either in the short term or the long term,” he said.

Democratic congressional candidate Arne Mattson of Tottenville, who recently retired from the Fire Department after 20 years, was in the audience as Fossella, his opponent, was on the stage.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York), who was greeted by a mix of cheers and boos, proposed that some of the federal dollars going to federal homeland security efforts be used to help under write higher pay for cops and firefighters.

“It’s unconscionable that you’ve gotten no raise in the wake of 9/11,” she said. “I believe police officers are entitled to a raise not just because of September 11th, but because of every single day. We have to do more than just talk about the sacrifices. We’ve got to reward those who are in the front lines.

Federal dollars should also be spent to make sure emergency response workers get adequate health coverage and good equipment, Mrs. Clinton said.

Firefighters have been without a contract for 27 months and without a pay raise in 40 month, said Tom Butler, fire union spokesman.

Said PBA President Patrick Lynch: “The proud Police Department and Fire Department are on the verge of death – death from a broken heart, a heart that cried on September 11th. Many expect us to fail, but as we stand here we carry with us the memory of those who have given their lives over the years and those who will perish in the future protecting this city.”

Some 343 firefighters, including 78 Staten Islanders, and more that 20 police officers died in the World Trade Center attacks. Many in the audience chanted “too much praise, too little raise,” others carried place-cards saying, “They say, ‘Never forget,’ we say, ‘Already forgotten.’”

Staten Islander Tom Scotto, president of the Detectives Endowment Association, which has had its own salary skirmishes with the city over the years, said pressure must be applied to Bloomberg to “modify” the proposed police agreement. Failing that, Scotto said, the union could seek a public referendum to get a fair shake.

“We can always go to the people,” he said.

The rally, played out under a scorching sun and sweltering humidity, was a mix between a labor rally – representatives from labor groups ranging from the Transport Workers Union to the UFT were on hand – and a political rally.

Also present were a number of city and state lawmakers, including state Sen. Vincent Gentile (D-East Shore/Brooklyn) and Assemblymen John Lavelle (D-North Shore) and Robert Straniere (R-South Shore).

Two actors also showed up – Bert Young, who played the character Paulie in “Rocky” movies, and James Gandolfini, who plays New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano on the HBO series “The Sopranos.”

The police had no crowd estimate last night. There were no arrests.