Judge Orders City Not To Increase Fee for New FDNY Entrance Exam


Nothing is ever easy with the federal government’s four decade long attempt to force the city to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and make the Fire Department more diverse. As we wrote about in our cover story last December, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis recently ordered that the latest FDNY exam the city gave, test “6019,” created “disparate impact” on minorities and could not be used, even though far more minorities took and passed it than ever had before.

Since December, all parties have accepted the ruling and, seemingly, have been working together under a court appointed Special Master to devise a new test (test “2000.”) But they were back in court yesterday when the city wanted to charge $54 for the new test, a whopping 80% increase over the last time the exam was given just four years ago.

The judge said no, and also found a way to help the “limbo class” who took the last exam but who’d be too old to take the new one have another shot at becoming firefighters.

Not surprisingly, the Vulcan Society, the organization of black firefighters that’s intervening in the federal government’s lawsuit against the city, was not happy about the increased fee.

“At a time when we are doing everything we can” to increase minority applications, FDNY Captain Paul Washington of the Vulcans said, “and people are really struggling, this isn’t going to help” more black and Hispanic people take the exam. The fee would create yet another barrier to doing something about the fact that white people make up about 35% of the city’s population but over 90% of the FDNY’s ranks.

Surprisingly, the City’s counsel said that Washington’s concern that the $54 filing fee would keep certain people from taking the exam was “probably true.” But it said it would suppress all people, and not just “black people.” The City didn’t seem to think this was a bad idea, though. While the Vulcans and the federal government argued that the NYPD’s one time use of a free entrance exam had helped it to achieve a far more diverse police department (now “majority minority”), the City argued that that test was an experiment in “failure.” More minorities and applicants in general signed up to take the free NYPD exam, the City said, but only 24% of those who signed up actually showed up to take it. To them, it was “a waste of money.”

The plaintiffs didn’t argue that the new FDNY exam — which is being created by testing experts jointly selected by the Vulcans, the Feds and the City, and is being developed with input from all of them — should be free. Even Washington admitted that some fee separates the serious from the unserious. But they were concerned that, at $54, FDNY exam 2000 would be the most expensive of the city exams, which had nearly doubled in price since 6019 was given in 2007. Considering black people have not fared especially well in the past four years, they didn’t understand why the City was choosing to create yet another stumbling roadblock.

The City argued that their administration code dictates that entrance exams must be tied to the starting salary for the jobs for which they screen. So, since starting firefighters earn more than starting cops, the FDNY exam will always be more than the NYPD’s. Also when the FDNY starting salary was much lower four years ago, the filing fee was less.

But outside of court, Captain Washington said the city doesn’t have to charge more. He says the commissioners of the FDNY and DCAS (the Department of City Administrative Services) had indicated to him that they were open to lowering the fee. So he didn’t understand why Mayor Bloomberg was digging in his heels.

Judge Garaufis asked, at one point, why, if a job was important to you and you were willing to pay $30 to take the exam for it, why wouldn’t you pay $54? Ornery and mildly cranky, as he’s often seemed on the bench in this case, he looked at the fee from all sides. What would be wrong with having no fee at all, he also wondered aloud. He grilled the City on how much the exam would cost to give. When they replied $49 a person, he yelled that at $54, the City will be making “a profit!”

Garaufis also wanted the City to publicize the exam as much as possible. “The mayor has a radio program. Maybe he should advertise” the test there, he suggested, to laughter in the Court. “I could give him a script. Or he could provide his own.”

Later, though, he told the City that they’d never recoup the money they spent giving the exam, and that wasn’t his problem. He is clearly exasperated with having to force the City, repeatedly, to do something about a problem that they seem to find every way to exacerbate. Garaufis wants to see as many people — of all races — take the next exam, and if “that’s 50,000, I’ll consider that a great success.” The City may not agree from a financial point of view, he conceded, but “the City found the money for the libraries, the firehouse and the senior centers. They’ll find the money for this. I’m sure.”

The City wanted an answer on what they could charge, so they could open the filing period for the new exam 2000 tomorrow, July 13, leave it open until September 13, and then give 2000 in January, 2012. Last evening, Garaufis issued an order saying that, as it was for 6019, the fee for 2000 will be $30.00.

The fee wasn’t the only issue addressed in Court yesterday. Also on the docket:

— Garaufis congratulated the two sides for working together with the Special Master to agree on new “residency requirements” for taking FDNY exams. As it is, test takers get five bonus points for being residents of the city. But the Vulcans argued that many fire fighters move out to the island, their kids are raised out there, and then their families find a way to fake City residency when it comes time to taking the exam. Three forms of identification will be needed to prove you live in New York City when sitting for exam 2000.

In our feature, we focused a lot on the “limbo class,” especially people who’d aced 6019, who were willing to retake 2000, but who’d be older than the cutoff age (29) and ineligible by the time it was given. Since the last time the case was in Court, the City Council passed a law saying that the cutoff age for people who’d made it onto the list for 6019 would be 35. But the judge wasn’t happy that the Council was singling out applicants who’d made it on the list, saying that anyone who took 6019 could retake it. If an “exam is illegal, the results are illegal,” he said. The City didn’t fight him on this, only asking that he order it from the bench. “If you want an order from the court, it will be provided,” Garaufis said.

— And, finally, Garaufis expressed grave concern about people lying on exam 2000 about their race. He said he’d read blogs encouraging applicants to lie in order to undermine the entire process of attempting to make the FDNY come into compliance with the Civil Rights Act.The City pointed out that it would say on exam 2000 that anyone who lied about anything in their application, including their race, would be ineligible for that job. Garaufis wanted them to point out the test is under the jurisdiction of a federal court, and lying could create appropriately severe consequences.

After the hearing, a lawyer for the Vulcans identified the blog in question as Merit Matters, which we’re familiar with and which is run by a man named Paul Mannix who is usually in court for these hearings (but was absent yesterday). We didn’t find the exact call to statistical deception Garaufis had described there, but we did find this cartoon:

As well as an interesting video about the limbo class.

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