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Fire chief’s plan under fire

Andy Ouriel • Dec 11, 2013 at 12:30 PM

Sandusky fire Chief Paul Ricci stormed out of Monday’s city meeting after commissioners refused to make a decision on fire department finances.

Ricci pleaded with commissioners to shift $1 million from an equipment and vehicle account to payroll purposes, a move thatwould preserve six fulltime firefighter positions in 2014 and 2015. A federal grant covering these salaries expired a few days ago.

There could be consequences if the city’s fulltime fire staffing levels drop from 53 to 47, according to Ricci.

A smaller staff would mean: q Increasing response times for crews headed to fires and other emergencies. On average, it could jump from 2 minutes to 4 minutes.

• Closing Fire Station No. 7 on Venice Road by Toft Dairy and Fire Station No. 3 near Cedar Point.

• Giving priority to certain emergencies rather than responding to calls on a first-come, first-served basis.

Commissioners effectively delayed Ricci’s proposal until January, which lets a newly elected set of commissioners decide the issue.

The inaction at Monday’s meeting frustrated Ricci and about 10 other firefighters who attended.

“These are tough times. These are extraordinary times. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures,” Sandusky fire Capt. Dave Degnan said. “This is a one-time deal, and you can hang me on a cross if they do it again”

Commissioners and city officials knew about a year ago they’d be facing this problem, and yet they still did nothing, Ricci said.

“I am wasting my time,” Ricci said just before he stormed out of the commission chambers.

Ricci couldn’t understand why money from one fire account — coined EMS, for vehicle and equipment purchases — couldn’t be swapped into the fire payroll account.

The EMS account, fueled by ambulance billing, today shows a balance of about $1.8 million. Even after paying out six salaries and accounting for other expenses, the EMS funds should still total about $900,000 in 2015.

“You have to do the right thing, and that’s spending down the fund and reallocating the money,” Ricci said. “This is about serving the city and community and not letting six firefighters wonder if they are going to have a job next year because we can’t make a decision in this room”

Commissioners voted 4-2 against Ricci’s proposal, with Diedre Cole, John Hamilton, Wes Poole and Jeff Smith opposing and Pervis Brown and Julie Farrar in favor. Commissioner Keith Grohe didn’t attend the meeting.

Budget estimates show Sandusky, by early next year, projecting a $1 million deficit in its $16 million 2014 budget. There’s no room in the fire department’s $5.2 million 2014 budget to fund these positions.

Several unappealing options exist to offset the looming deficit by March, including raising taxes, laying off workers or spending down the city’s $4 million surplus.

The fire department accounts for about half the projected deficit. Another $500,000 shortfall derives from cuts in local government funds and the elimination of estate taxes city officials previously collected.

Where commissioners stand on Ricci’s plan

Commissioners and others offered views on Ricci’s proposal at Monday’s meeting. Here’s what some had to say:

“I believe that the existing commission (would do) a disservice to our community by acting on this. We’re already starting the budget process with one hand tied behind our backs. We’ll end up with both hands behind our back.”  — Dick Brady, commissioner-elect

“We have the funds that is already allocated to the fire department. It’s just a line item change. To me, the equipment doesn’t save lives. Men save lives. “I’m not going to substitute equipment for manpower.” — Pervis Brown, commissioner

“This presentation is wasted on this commission. The new commission has the authority to undo whatever we do. We knew it was coming, and we did absolutely nothing to prepare for it. We relied on Chief Ricci to come up with a Plan B, and now we are not happy with Plan B.” — Diedre Cole, commissioner

“I don’t think a big company like Cedar Point would want Fire Station No. 3 to close if they had a big fire.” — Julie Farrar, commissioner

“It’s horrible that the city is looking at significant layoffs, but we are going to have to spread that obligation and that burden around. It is unreasonable to think your department should be immunized from the cuts that (could) be made.” — Dennis Murray Jr. commissioner-elect

“I do think it was a waste and untimely on your part, since this is a decision that’s going to be made next year.” — Wes Poole, commissioner

“We should work on the budget. We don’t want to let anyone go. But at this time, as tough as the budget is, we would do our citizens a disservice. We need to worry about it at the same time we work (on the budget.)” — Jeff Smith, commissioner

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