Syracuse cuts pay to disabled firefighters, injured firefighter says it isn't fair

Rick Azzoto speaks with Jim Kenyon Thursday morning.

The City of Syracuse has found that ten firefighters who were injured in the line of duty were being overpaid and is reducing their disability income.

Former firefighter Rick Azzoto was severely injured on August 23rd, 1986 when his fire truck crashed into a building on South Salina Street. The rig flipped over, nearly crushing him to death.

"It hit with such impact my door blew off... it landed on top of me. I was trapped for a half an hour. I actually saw my mother who passed away two years before. We were ready to touch hands. My comrades got me out just in time," Azzoto told CNY Central's Jim Kenyon.

Azzoto suffered severe leg and internal injuries and has been disabled ever since. Under Municipal Law 207-A, the City of Syracuse is obligated to provide Azzoto with health insurance and full pay with cost of living adjustments as if he was an active duty firefighter.

On September 25th, Azzoto received a letter informing him that his income was being reduced by several thousand dollars per year. Similar letters went out to nine other disabled firefighters. Azzoto says he is upset and hurt by the decision.

"We've been sitting back there for years, nobody bothering us and all of the sudden they say 'Let's save some money. Here's an easy thing, they can't even defend themselves. It's bullying. There's certain people you shouldn't go after and I consider myself one of them. How much more do you have to give? Body parts?'"

Syracuse Chief of Staff Bill Ryan says the head of the Retired Firefighters Association contacted City Hall last year to report that the disabled firefighters did not receive the proper cost of living adjustment as required by Municipal Law 207-A. Ryan says he instructed Syracuse Fire Chief Paul Linnertz to review the benefits for everyone under Municipal Law 207-A to see if they were underpaid.

"I didn't expect it to go the other way," Ryan said.

Linnertz says his review found "All of the disabled firefighters were receiving the top amount of longevity pay, and I don't know why." Linnertz says he adjusted their pay accordingly.

"To continue to overpay anyone on the city's behalf would be the improper gift of public funds... I feel terrible that Rick is in this position, but there is nothing I can do."

Ryan added, "They are on a fixed income, and to take money away from them is troubling to me as a human being and as an official of the City of Syracuse. Again, I have no choice. We have to pay them the proper amounts... period."

Azzoto says, "When you're a firefighter, you're a firefighter forever. It's a fraternity we're in and I just feel like the fire department has let me down."

Ryan says the city will not seek reimbursement for past overpayments.