MOUNT VERNON - Mount Vernon's firefighter unions are clashing with the mayor's office over allegations of understaffing, but the mayor argues that the problem amounts to sick time abuse.

Mayor Ernie Davis alleges that firefighters are abusing their sick time. His response is to not pay the overtime to replace them. "The city cannot fund the aspirations of people who don't want to come to work," he said.

However, Ernie Richardson, the head of the fire unions, says the problem is much more complex. He says 26 out of 135 firefighters, or nearly 20 percent of the force, are out on disability because of line-of-duty injuries. Richardson adds that even if the firefighters weren't hurt, the department would still be understaffed.

The unions pointed to the house on Fulton Avenue as an example of the manpower issue. On Friday, it was staffed with no supervisors and only firefighters, which fire officials say could slow them down in an emergency.

Mayor Davis says he may hire a private investigator to look into the alleged sick time abuse. The union leader says that such an investigator would only find that firefighters are really sick.