The proposed staffing reduction, from 53 today to 49 in May, would force three firefighters out of their jobs. The fourth position is currently empty.
Firefighters union opposes cuts. Watch "Between the Lines Live" today at 5 p.m. or on demand for interview with SFD Lt. Adam Butler and firefighter and union VP Ryan Brotherton.
A decision to cut fire staffing levels stemmed from an ongoing citywide financial pinch, highlighted by a $1.1 million shortfall in Sandusky’s $16.3 million everyday operating budget for 2014.
Officials must balance the budget, funding most city services including police and fire, by March.
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For months, firefighters listened to proposals from city officials, calling for decreasing department manpower.
Union representatives agreed to various concessions, including forgoing taxpayer-funded physicals, training opportunities and overtime payouts in hopes to avoid staffing cuts
But it wasn’t enough.
The union then countered with other solutions for funding, including taking additional money from a vehicle and equipment account funded and maintained by the fire department through billings for EMS services.
But it wasn’t accepted by commissioners.
And finally, in a last-ditch effort, union representatives suggested other departments absorb additional cuts, saving the fire department.
But it wasn’t possible.
Cuts to the fire department needed to occur, Sandusky ex officio mayor Dennis Murray Jr. said.
“It’s a question of prudent stewardship of taxpayer dollars,” Murray said. “Commissioners are going to vote on a budget, and that will include reducing funding in the Fire Department that will result in some layoffs in the fire department.”
Since elected in November, thus beginning his second stint as a city commissioner in January, Murray has spearheaded the effort to make the city fiscally responsibility. City department heads followed Murray’s lead in finding ways to balance the budget.
When Murray returned to City Hall, a $1 million federal grant funding six full-time firefighter positions had just expired. The grant, obtained in early 2011, ensured 53 full-time fire slots through 2013.
During this time, however, the city made little or no effort to stash away funds to pay for those positions once the grant ended.
Murray reiterated it’s impossible for Sandusky’s budget to fund the positions going forward without sacrificing other services, such as police, horticulture, parks and recreation, engineering and other operations.
The lack of financial planning disappoints Sandusky fire Lt. Adam Butler, who wrote, applied and was successful in the city’s effort to secure the grant.
Butler said the grant allowed the department to maintain a staffing level of 53 full-time firefighter, which was still a reduction from past years.
“We are potentially losing three firefighters from three engines that are part of three squads,” Butler said. “We are getting to the point where this is seriously affecting our operation. If we get three consecutive calls, we’re might not get to all of them.”
Butler’s colleague, Sandusky firefighter Ryan Brotherton, echoed Butler’s opinion.
Brotherton’s also the department’s union vice president.
“If we lose four guys, and other guys call in sick and we’re short on positions, and we’re without a training budget, it’s only a matter of time before one of us gets hurt,” Brotherton said. “We’re going into the busiest part of the year. When someone calls 911, there might not be a unit to respond.”
Mutual aid from nearby communties isn’t a guarantee, Brotherton said.
“All the other departments might be on runs,” Brotherton said. “There is going to be a time when no one will respond.”
During the past few weeks, Murray’s quarterbacked town hall-style meetings to better inform residents of Sandusky’s budget challenges.
Among the topics he discussed: How fire operations haven’t faced as many cuts in recent times versus other city departments.
At $4.5 million in 2014, fire operations account for roughly 27 percent of the city’s 2014 budget — the largest of all departments.
“We cut other departments to the the point where we are at risk of not being able to provide real basic government services,” Murray said. “You can close the parks, the greenhouse, you can abandon city street work, turn off all the lights and a lot of other things and be worse off. But we have to look at some place for cuts and, unfortunately, we have to cut safety forces.”
Brotherton and Butler said Murray is not accounting for past staffing cuts in the fire department.
City data, obtained through a public records request, shows fire department full-time staffing levels plummeting almost 19 percent from 58 in 2004 to 47 in 2010.
The amount the city spent on fire operations also dropped each year. In 2013, expenses were down about $500,000 over expenses in 2008, from $4.6 million to $4.1 million last year.
Meanwhile, calls for ambulance and fire runs have steadily increased, peaking to 5,400 calls in 2013 — the most since the early 2000s.
“Dennis is a smart guy, but he is wrong on this,” Butler said.
Union representatives, during ongoing negotiations, suggested taking more money from EMS account.
In past years, city commissioners withdrew $150,000 annually from the fund. Through ambulance billing, the account generates about $800,000 a year and is used for purchases, such as new fire trucks. This account has about a $1.7 million balance today.
The proposed budget commissioners plan to review includes taking an additional $250,000 from the EMS fund this year, for a total of $400,000, to help erase the shortfall.
But the union wants officials to use an additional $180,000 — in addition to the $400,000 already agreed upon — to keep all current firefighters on staff. That would allow the city to maintain current safety levels, Brotherton said, while providing the fire department more time to develop an alternative revenue source down the road.
“There is no reason, with all that money sitting in that account that we bring in, to not use it,” said Brotherton, adding that it would be the best use of the fund. “We’d rather drive together in a fire truck covered in duct tape than lose manpower.”
Said Butler: “How do citizens feel about laying off firemen when you have money in a capital account? Why would you set aside money for truck when no one is going to drive it?”
Murray, however, rejected the proposal of taking more money from the vehicle and equipment account.
“The reserve has to be there for equipment purchases going forward,” Murray said. “All we are doing by burning through the reserves is delaying difficult decisions. I would rather be able to see the force (with four fewer) firefighters for the foreseeable future as opposed to (six or eight fewer) firefighters and burn through all your money to buy equipment.”
Developing a plan to avoid future financial problems might include potentially raising the city’s 1 percent income tax or 3 percent admissions tax rates. Officials could also push forward in placing a fire levy on an upcoming ballot.