Firestorm at City Hall over possible fire station closings

SANDUSKY Closing Fire Station No. 3 kindled some fiery responses from residents. On M
jasonsinger
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Closing Fire Station No. 3 kindled some fiery responses from residents.

On Monday night, one resident after another peppered the city commission about eliminating overtime in the fire department two weeks ago, which led to the Cedar Point Causeway Fire Station No. 3 being closed six out of the past 10 days.

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Fire Chief Mike Meinzer said the move could also potentially close Fire Station No. 7, located on Venice Road, on some summer days.

"Without safety, everything is a non-issue," Rev. Herman Robinson told the commission. "It really is egregious for us to be talking about having fire departments undermanned. That should be Job No. 1."

A number of firefighters also spoke out against the move, initiated by city manager Matt Kline with input from the city commission.

Fire union president Glenn Szatala said the city has reduced staff since 2005 while calls have increased an average of 3 percent every year since. He said call volume has increased 37 percent since 1996, and noted reductions in response time could result in the loss of life.

"Please don't put the public's safety at further risk and restore funding to maintain minimum staffing level of 12 firefighters and three open stations," Szatala said.

In total, more than a dozen people spoke out against the move, calling it dangerous and saying it reduces the quality of life.

But Kline noted the city faces an unprecedented financial crisis.

Last month, the finance committee said the city must cut at least $1.2 million from its budget next year, and Kline said the committee now recommends $1.5 million in cuts.

He said to achieve that, he would have to eliminate the engineering department, forestry department, building maintenance, economic development office, recreation division and close the Sandusky Greenhouse and Mills Creek Golf Course. That still wouldn't be enough.

"That only totals out $700,000 (in savings)," Kline said. "My point is: I haven't recommended any of these cuts, but that's what we're looking at for 2010. ... I think everybody would agree that each of these items that were just mentioned have to do with the quality of life everyone is talking about."

Kline said those cuts would result in 18 lost full-time jobs and other part-time jobs. He also noted 65 percent of the general fund budget go to the fire and police departments.

John Ginty, a former city commissioner, said Kline should consider cutting everything before safety services.

"The city has to realize what its priorities are," Ginty said. "And the safety of its people should be No. 1."

The city faces a $1.65 million deficit in 2009 and will be nearly $2 million in the hole by 2011 if it doesn't make changes, officials have said. It might have to borrow from water, sewer and other funds for payroll by early next year.

Kline said in addition to cuts, the city needs extra revenue. He said raising the city's income tax from 1 to 1.5 percent would raise more than $3 million.

Dennis Temple, another resident, suggested raising the admissions tax instead of taxing the residents who can't afford it.

Meinzer said he was pleased by all the support from residents and firefighters, and urged the commission and Kline to change their minds about reducing the department's overtime.

The commission entered into executive session to discuss personnel matters, but no decisions were made.

SIDEBAR: City cuts environmental consultants

The city commission voted to terminate the contract of Bob and Ruth Haag, the city's brownfield consultants, during Monday's meeting.

Commissioner Bob Warner, who brought the motion, said it would save the city $17,000 and help pay for the salary of John Hancock, the new director of the department of planning, engineering and development. Commissioner Julie Farrar said they were duplicating services by employing the consultants and Hancock.

The commissioner voted 5-2 to terminate the Haags' contract, which expires in Janaury. Dan Kaman and Dave Waddington dissented.

Many residents criticized the city commission for the move and gave the Haags a loud ovation. The Haags oversaw the Chesapeake Walkway construction, among other projects.

"I think this was a pretty poor decision," said Craig Hartman, a Chesapeake Lofts resident. "There's not the talent in Cleveland and knowledge or expertise and passion ... of the Haags."

A number of residents said Hancock and deputy director of engineering Kathy McKillips were duplicating services, not the Haags.

"I'm disappointed to hear that the contract with the Haags has been unfortunately ended," resident Sue Daugherty said. "I would like the commission to know that was a penny wise decision, but pound foolish."

Warner said it was nothing against the Haags -- he was just trying to save the city money.