Sandusky Fire Dept. faces cuts

City commissioners expected to vote Monday on a budget that includes elimination of four full-time firefighter positions
Andy Ouriel
Feb 19, 2014

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.

Get today's Register for a budget breakdown. Click here or the ePaper, for home delivery or buy a Register at a newsstand near you every day. 

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.”

Sticking together

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.”

Read letter to the editor from Brotherton

Deeper cuts

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.

 

Comments

Peninsula Pundit

Lay off cops,horticulture and recreation, not firefighters.
The citizenry can buy guns for protection and plant flowers and cut grass in parks (if the police will let them), but we don't have the training nor equipment to fight fires.

publicsafety

Privatize the fire department then they won't have any issues would be more efficient and have less wasteful spending. Good job Sandusky - doing more with less is important! Applause!

Comrade Boose

Did we read the same article? This department is efficient and doing a good job. If you want to make the above post at least change your name to NOTFORPUBLICSAFETY.

Retiredfirefighter

I agree comrade boose. SFD has been doing alot with less for many years now.

donutshopguy

Make the necessary layoffs. If the general public feels there is a safety issue then they should institute a drive to put a new levy on the ballot to cover the new costs.

Power to the people.

Comrade Boose

Layoff police and fire and you put peoples lives at risk!

Comrade Boose

Thanks Andy Ouriel for reporting this solid job. Mr. Murray is right we need to bring revenue into the city. A kick-start to this solution would be a small income tax increase of .25%(no effect on retired people on social security or pension). Increase admission tax 1-2%. Then work on brining in jobs to the city. Downtown is slowly turning around we just need to keep going.

Bogtrotter

.

Retiredfirefighter

Raise it to 8% and watch no one come to cedar point. They pay that in orlando because they have alot more parks and are open year round you idiot. We are one lowest income city in the area and people still dont want to live here. Did you ever think it is because the lack of cops or firefighters is one reason? Think about that before you open your mouth again.

SamAdams

This isn't a "cut" to the Fire Department per se. It's simply returning to where we were BEFORE a big grant was accepted, and AFTER those in charge failed to plan in advance to offset the funding when the grant expired.

Everybody knew the grant money had an end date, but almost nobody thought about it. They took the money and ran, which some of us were afraid would happen from day one.

Do I WANT the Fire Department cut? No. Peninsula Pundit makes an exceedingly valid point when he says the specialized training of a firefighter (not to mention the specialized equipment) can't be duplicated by residents. But again, failure to plan is effectively planning to fail. The money isn't there. Deal with it. And if blame is to be placed, put it squarely where it belongs: On those City leaders who ACCEPTED the "free" money, happily spent it without a plan ready to go into effect when the money was gone, and now just can't do anything but cry crocodile tears about the whole mess.

Retiredfirefighter

Agreed and if some body dies because of the city commisioners poor planning then they should be the ones who are sued.

donutshopguy

Comrade Boose,

Why don't we have a fireman and policeman on ever street corner? Aren't we putting people's lives at risk without this exaggeration? Think of the lives we can save.

O' I have a better idea. Lets put a policeman and fireman in each home. That's it.

It's about lives.

Comrade Boose

I doubt it is an exaggeration the data is out there to prove it. It was also stated at a town hall meeting that you are putting lives in danger when you layoff police and fire. Ask an insurance agent if your rates are based on the size of you fire department. Ask a emergency doctor if your chances of surviving a heart attack or stroke are better if your emergency response is fast.

Comrade Boose

I doubt it is an exaggeration the data is out there to prove it. It was also stated at a town hall meeting that you are putting lives in danger when you layoff police and fire. Ask an insurance agent if your rates are based on the size of you fire department. Ask a emergency doctor if your chances of surviving a heart attack or stroke are better if your emergency response is fast.

Comrade Boose

The point of the article is that cuts were made prior to the grant money. The grant money only brought back laid off firefighters it did not create new positions. 58 Firefighters down to 47 up to 53 soon to be down to 49. Want to be fair then go through every department in the city those that haven't laid off anyone in the past ten years cut those people. It is hardly fair to lump all of the departments in one group and police and fire separately.

Darkhorse

The union wages and benefits are the big issue here. The city just can't keep up with the union's demand, that the union get more than the private sector is receiving. The schools are the same way. No one realizes that the public has no more money to give if they wanted to give it. Everyone is broke so what part doesn't the schools and government understand.There is no support coming to the rescue. The city can't pay for something they cannot afford.

Comrade Boose

Did you even see the contract the firefighters did make cuts in the last contract paying more into health insurance and retirement. If you want to make cuts don't cut essential services like police and fire.

Comrade Boose

Did you even see the contract the firefighters did make cuts in the last contract paying more into health insurance and retirement. If you want to make cuts don't cut essential services like police and fire.

donutshopguy

Comrade,

Wouldn't my two scenarios offer the community more security? Are you against what you support?

DGMutley

Donut,

There's a good article by Andy Ouriel on the fire department in Wednesday's Register. Also, in the same issue is a commentary from Ryan Brotherton on these proposed cuts. We can't afford these cuts. 53 to 49.

Incidentally, the SPD was staffed by 90 full and part time staff in 2003. In 2012 the department was staffed by 55 full and part time staff.

Pretty jaw-dropping, huh?

publicsafety

Totally agree DARKHORSE! The fire department will be just fine, don't let them fool you! They may be down a few guys and might have to work harder, but consolidation, concession, and thinking outside the box will go along way. I totally agree with what the city if doing.... look at the facts, sure insurance might go up, but NOT ALL insurances use ISO ratings - especially some of the big one - ISO ratings are becoming outdated! Things burn faster these days and fire department tactics are changing, so should the staffing levels. Stay progressive SFD and maybe you wouldn't be so upset your not sitting in your recliner anymore! SPD is making concessions and strides as well.

Comrade Boose

NOTPUBLICSAFETY nice job using this forum to spew your lies. The days of the recliner are over, these guys are training on tactics to keep up with the changes. It is hard to be progressive when you don't have the man power to do it. No once have I said the SPD hasn't made concessions. They do a great job just like the fire department has. Cut the fire department or police department and you are just putting us all at risk and that is a fact you can't even dispute.

reader

Prudent management of city resources is raising the admissions tax. 3% is low compared to other tourist destination cities.

Mr. Murray won't discuss this option because his firm represents Cedar Point , but there's no reason the rest of us citizens can't support an increase to a more responsible amount.

Raise the admission tax to 8%. Preserve our safety forces at present staffing levels and fix our streets.

It was ridiculous for Mr. Murray to lead a public discussion of the city finances without including the admission tax.

Retiredfirefighter

Reader i agree but he wont because like you said his firm represents cedar point. I think he has a conflict of interest there.

donutshopguy

reader,

Why don't we just raise the admission tax 50% ? We could fund everything in the city. It's just those silly tourists. Milk them until they stop coming. Oops, that's a problem.

Retiredfirefighter

doughnut why dont you just shut your mouth. you are a total moron.

donutshopguy

Retiredfirefighter,

How's your thug mentality coming? Sounds like the normal union goon. Nice representation of your brothers.

I'm guessing your next comment will be challenging me to a fight. Maybe you and your brothers will just jump me.

Down goes Frasier! Down goes Frasier!

Dr. Information

Its a fact. Most fire departments budgets are bloated and can be cut back severely without a hiccup in service. Some of the smaller towns around this area have nearly a million dollar a year budget for serving 6-7,000 people. Actual houses they save, next to none. A friend of mine calls their towns fire department basement savers.

mitchello

Some of the very basic purposes of any government is public safety. Cutting police and firefighter positions is getting into dangerous ground unless there are just no other options and all other fat has been trimmed.
In my experience cutting public safety areas is a prerequisite to introducing a levy to get more money out of the public. Safety is something that the public holds very dear. Placing levies that people have to pass to maintain public safety creates a wedge between the safety person and average citizen that most want to avoid.... thus levies are passed.
Sandusky citizens really need to get involved here and make sure the right things are being cut.

Elwood

Almost any raise in the admissions tax would have a drastic effect on the State Theater.

Why should Cedar Point have to bail out the city of Sandusky because of their poor financial management? Other cities like Sandusky manage to get by, and they don't have a cash cow across the bay. Come on Sandusky, learn to live within your budget.

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