AMESBURY – The city firefighters’ union pushed back on Friday against Mayor Ken Gray’s claim earlier this week that the organization endorsed Kassandra Gove’s bid for mayor to gain leverage as Gray and the union try to hammer out a new contract. 

On Monday, Gray issued a statement saying the union was “playing politics as a negotiating tactic in an apparent attempt to strong-arm their way into a better deal.”

For several months now, Gray and Amesbury Firefighters Local 1783 have been working toward an agreement on a new contract after the union’s 3-year contract with the city expired June 30. Historically, contracts have been three years in length. 

“The Local takes an absolute issue with this statement, due to the fact that our ground rules between us and the city of Amesbury explicitly state that we are not to discuss negotiations with any third party unless the negotiations themselves have come to an impasse,” Local 1783 President David Carpentier said in a statement. 

Carpentier said the two sides have not reached an impasse and it was “mere coincidence” the union contract ended around the same time Gray was seeking re-election. He also accused the mayor of not properly funding the Fire Department. 

“We are more than capable of separating the two issues at hand; negotiations with the current city administration and an endorsement of a candidate that we feel supports us, the police, schools, highway/sewer/water, library, and municipal employees in the ideals and actions of serving the community and making a difference in the lives of those we care for,” the statement reads. 

In an email received Friday afternoon, Gray again accused Local 1783 of playing politics. 

“The union claiming a lack of funding, after having attempted to cover up the theft of taxpayer dollars from within their ranks, is politics at its worst. As mayor, I will continue to approach negotiations with the goal of balancing the needs of our taxpayers and our employees, while ignoring political distractions,” he wrote. 

The “cover up” Gray mentions in his statement is based on a recently obtained Amesbury Police Department report which states union leaders learned of two former firefighters fraudulently collecting overtime pay but hid what they discovered from Fire Chief Ken Berkenbush.  

In July, former fire lieutenant Scott Cloutier admitted to a Salem Superior Court judge that he collected $29,600 in overtime pay he didn’t earn and was sentenced to five years of probation. 

On Thursday, another former fire lieutenant, Craig Deguio, was arraigned in Newburyport District Court on a charge of larceny over $1,200 for allegedly stealing more than $2,000 in the same manner. 

The union’s statement on Friday later shifts to what the union believes is the mayor’s focus on the city’s money-generating ambulance service to the detriment of a “dedicated fire attack response.” In the last two fiscal years, the ambulance service has accounted for more than $1.5 million in revenue, money which is appropriated by the mayor’s office to help balance the budget. 

“Our staffing model does not meet current National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommendations for engine and ladder company responses,” the union statement reads. “The city has focused predominantly on ambulance crew readiness instead of dedicated fire attack response. This failure to conform to highly touted and proven recommendations directly translates to a lack of personnel safety as trucks leave the station to work in such a dangerous occupation.”

Proof of such failure, according to the union, can be see at 124 Elm St., the site of the city’s second fire station, which has been closed since July 19, 2017, after its concrete floor failed. 

“Anyone will notice, however, that other city property is being stored in this building without a thought or regard to the situation that caused fire department personnel to be moved into one building at 17 School St. (Fire Department headquarters),” the statement reads. 

The lack of a second station has meant storing fire vehicles and other equipment in the back parking lot, a place Carpentier called a “fire truck boneyard.” 

“Many of the trucks you see back there are now out of service due to age, weathering, and a refusal to pay for repairs. Even inside the station, the city of Amesbury is borrowing (with thanks) the secondary ambulance that rightfully belongs to Merrimac Fire (Department),” Carpentier writes. He also said the Amesbury Fire Department has not had functional fire boat in years. 

Staff writer Dave Rogers can be reached at drogers@newburyportnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008.

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