The latest chapter in the dramatic west side fire story turned out pretty happily.
But a cliffhanger exists, presenting some troubling uncertainty come 2015 and beyond.
Sandusky administrators, commissioners and fire union representatives on Monday came to terms with keeping Sandusky Fire Station No. 7 on Venice Road open at all times beginning Thursday until Dec. 31.
Budget cuts and staffing shortages served as primary reasons for the station periodically closing about three times per week since May. The fire department currently employs 48 full-time workers, down from 53 earlier this year. Employees either retired or left the station to work elsewhere.
The city's $16 million budget, hampered by rising expenses, can't cover costs for replacing these positions.
Among the terms on a new pact, signed by city administrators and fire union personnel, specifically geared toward reopening station No. 7 on a full-time basis:
• Minimum full-time fire staffing levels now shrinks from 49 to 48.
• City officials won’t pay for fire employee physicals.
The prior contract stipulated city officials must use local taxpayer dollars to pay for physicals if full-time staffing levels dropped below 49. Union personnel surrendered this demand to reopen the station.
These two new stipulations save about $30,000 now through Dec. 31, allowing city administrators to leverage these funds for overtime to existing personnel — ensuring enough employees at any time can report at station No. 7, primarily serving west side residents.
“This will provide us with enough flexibility to keep station No. 7 open without any brownouts for the rest of the year,” city manager Eric Wobser said.
Fire employees also voiced support for the plan.
“All parties involved realize that the safety and welfare of our citizens and customers must be the priority,” Sandusky fire Chief Dave Degnan said. “We were hired to do a job, and we must make every effort to accomplish this task.”
Degnan, however, stressed the main downfall of keeping station No. 7 open 24 hours a day.
“I want all the citizens to know that the department is providing this service at the absolute minimum safest staffing level, and I feel that this level can only be maintained until the end of 2014,” Degnan said. “This critically low staffing level must not become the standard as we feel our ability to respond to emergencies will falter, and the possibility of injuries or deaths will rise.”
Other issues exist with the new pact.
The expected $30,000 savings should only last until Dec. 31. After then, it’s not known how city officials can keep station No. 7 open without finding additional funding.
“That $30,000 is just enough for five months,” Wobser said. “This is a short-term solution for the rest of 2014.”
Said Sandusky finance director Hank Solowiej: “This is just a temporary solution to a major issue. A lot rides on what happens in the fall on how we move forward.”
Solowiej’s alluding to an issue on the fall ballot, asking city residents to increase the income tax rate from 1 percent to 1.25 percent, effective Jan. 1, 2015.
If this occurs, administrators vowed to simultaneously increase the admissions tax rate from 3 percent to 4 percent.
And no matter how the tax vote goes, Cedar Point executives also promised to provide an additional $500,000 through a “corporate restructuring,” aimed at diverting additional tax money from other areas into Sandusky.
So, when accounting for all potential income sources, an additional $2.8 million could enter Sandusky’s coffers come 2015 if voters approve November’s tax issue.
A good chunk of this money would go toward bolstering fire services, which includes increasing employment levels.
Regardless of what happens in a few months, residents seemed ecstatic about their firehouse opening back up.
“I thank God that we are going to have our fire station open,” Muirwood Village resident Barbara Linden said.
At a glance: Sandusky Fire Station No. 7 reopens 24 hours a day
• A new contract calls for keeping Sandusky Fire Station No. 7 on Venice Road open at all times beginning Thursday until Dec. 31.
• Budget cuts and staffing shortages forced the station to close about three times per week since May.
• Union representatives conceded on some claims to ensure the station stays open at all times.
• Sandusky officials said they need additional money, likely through approval on a tax issue this fall, to keep this station open in 2015 and beyond.