The head of the Syracuse Firefighters Union says city hall was wrong, both legally and morally when it decided to cut the disability pay of nine firefighters who were injured in the line of duty.
Paul Motondo told CNY Central's Jim Kenyon Monday, "it affects every one of my members, every one of the firefighters within the City of Syracuse. It's a kick in the butt."
Motondo decided to speak out publicly after our report last Thursday on firefighter Rick Azzoto. He was nearly crushed to death on August 23, 1986 when the fire truck in which he was riding flipped over on top of him.
Under Municipal Law 207-a, which specifically applies to injured firefighters, Azzoto has been receiving full pay and health benefits for the past 27 years as if he was an active member of the fire department. Last September, after reviewing the records, Fire Chief Paul Linnertz determined that Azzoto and eight other disabled firefighters were being overpaid and reduced their benefits.
Azzoto said, "I just feel like the fire department let me down...There's certain people you shouldn't go after and I consider myself one of them. How much do you have to give...body parts? It isn't fair."
Motondo says the union is going to fight city hall on behalf of the disabled firefighters. At issue is how the city calculates longevity to determine disability benefits. It reportedly claims longevity should be geared toward the number of years a firefighter had been working before the injury. The Firefighters Union says the law expressly provides pay increases as if the disabled firefighter worked every day until retirement age.
Motondo says court rulings and Comptroller's opinions back them up. "This job has inherent risk. It's like an insurance policy for these firefighters...If they're going to go that extra mile, to save that child or get that elderly person or get that family out of that burning building, I don't want them to worry about the consequences in the future."
Chief of Staff Bill Ryan directed the Fire Chief to review the pay status of the disabled firefighters because at the time he thought they were being underpaid. "I had no idea it was going to go this way...it just did."
Though Ryan says the City did not intentionally set out to cut the income of disabled firefighters, Motondo says many of the fire department's personnel disagree. "The integrity of this fire department is being attacked from the inside out. Our resources are being cut, our staffing has been cut, we're losing fire houses. We're running more alarms than we've ever run. We're putting our guys at risk... So we're going to jeopardize a benefit these gals and guys have earned? We're not going to allow that."
Ryan says all city departments are dealing with cutbacks. "This is city-wide. We're all doing more with less...So the firefighters are not, I assure you, being singled out."
Motondo says the union is consulting with lawyers and plans a court challenge to the decision to reduce the disability pay to Rick Azzoto and eight others injured in the line of duty.