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Mayor postpones fire station closures
Posted By Brandon Reid On June 29, 2010 @ 12:29 pm In Happening Now | No Comments
Public outcry sends city back to negotiating table
• News and notes from the June 28 Rockford City Council meeting
By Stuart R. Wahlin
After more than 2,300 signatures were obtained in less than a week on a petition against the closures of two west-side fire stations, and after sharp criticisms from public speakers, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) announced June 28 he’d postpone by at least two weeks the closure of Station 8, 505 Sherman St., originally slated for July 1.
The closure is expected to save nearly $500,000 this year alone. Initially, only the elimination of one fire crew was proposed, with the station to remain open for ambulance service, but the administration later opted to close the facility completely.
Station 3, 1520 S. Main St., is expected to close Jan. 1, 2011, which is another deviation from the original plan to simply eliminate one fire crew from another west-side station. The closure is expected to save about $1 million annually.
Getting back to the table with the fire union to craft another solution, it seems, is the mandate from Rockford citizens. However, if the attitude of E.J. Dilonardo, president of the firefighters’ union, is any indication, the union’s stance against reduced manning on fire trucks is unyielding.
Although many aldermen expressed appreciation to the mayor for slowing down the process, the ongoing stalemate with the union leaves questions about how else the Fire Department can trim $1.5 million from its budget.
The pressure came to a boiling point during public comments when speaker after speaker blasted the mayor for his decision to close the two stations.
Gwen Lashock asserted: “The very idea of closing two fire stations on the west side, an area of generally older homes, many housing larger families and closer together, is the height of recklessness. It also smacks of discrimination, much as the school district’s ill-fated decision to close West High School gave rise to the People Who Care lawsuit.”
Lashock pointed to the city’s continued practice of forced annexations, which she suggested come at the price of reduced essential services. She argued public safety and public works should be atop government’s priorities, adding, “Sacrificing taxpayers’ safety is not an option.”
Lashock also took aim at the city’s consideration of spending millions for the purchase and demolition of the Tapco and Amerock buildings, but pooh-poohed the notion that those funds can only be used for certain types of projects.
“Just as former Ald. Victory Bell, at a previous meeting, spoke about the diversion of Community [Service] Block Grant funds, I am all too aware of the similar creative allocations of Motor Fuel Tax [MFT] and infrastructure sales tax funds,” she said. “This city administration has decided to dabble in education, tourism, real estate development, recreation, sports teams, etcetera. …Mr. Mayor, I ask you, how much do you project a human life is worth?”
Sara McGee, who circulated the petition that garnered 2,302 signatures, argued the added response time resulting from the station’s closure would put historic neighborhoods and those who live in them at greater risk.
Also referring to the recent forced-annexation of the Bradley Heights neighborhood, she noted, “They were promised fire and medical services, now only to have their fire engine taken away.”
McGee pointed out that the closure would not only affect the immediate neighborhoods, but the rest of the city, because when a fire breaks out in an area once covered by Station 8, it will take protection away from other areas.
“This will now require more resources to be brought in to bring what was once a small fire under control,” she noted. “In addition, firefighters will now be at greater risk, causing more harm and injuries, and only costing the city more money. This does not make any sense.”
McGee also noted the likelihood of increased insurance premiums for those who will be affected by longer response times, adding that it’s unconscionable to ask the public to accept reduced safety in the name of offsetting the city’s inability to live within its means.
“Our lives depend on the swift response times the Rockford Fire Department is known for, and the taxpayers and voters of Rockford deserve nothing less than the service and excellence from their leaders and first responders.”
Responding to loud applause after the first two speakers, Morrissey pounded his gavel and reminded attendees that clapping is not permitted.
Carol Bell, wife of former Ald. Victory Bell (D), agreed the closures would impact the entire city. She also wondered why both closures were being proposed for the west side.
She, like the other speakers, acknowledged the financial constraints causing city leaders to reassess priorities, but stressed, “Compromising public safety should never be considered as the road to financial solvency.
“Station No. 3 is located in the oldest section of the city, with the oldest housing stock, which is more susceptible to distress and more likely to need fire services,” she said, indicating the facility serves a large population of senior citizens. “Moreover, Station No. 3 serves a low-income area that already struggles with survivability issues, and you place them in jeopardy of increased insurance premiums and decreased services? …Those who are most vulnerable and who can least afford it are being targeted by these overarching decisions made by city leadership. They’re being forced to suffer the burden of removal of a vital service.”
Bell also noted the likely exacerbation of increased response times once the three-year Morgan Street bridge rebuilding project has begun.
“You are not only devaluing property—you are devaluing lives,” she argued.
Although the mayor doesn’t need council approval to proceed with the closures, Bell reminded aldermen they hold the purse strings.
“Your vote, your legislative action, determines, how, when and where the finances are directed,” she concluded.
Despite the mayor’s warning, attendees applauded Bell’s comments.
James Thomas, a 55-year resident of the southwest side, argued the closures would put senior citizens in jeopardy, adding, “The idea of the entire south side of Rockford not having a fire station is not only ludicrous, it’s criminal.”
Thomas said the entire city, not just one side of town, needs to share the financial burden.
“Don’t the west side people have a right to public safety?” he wondered, urging the mayor and firefighters to resolve their differences in the name of those they serve. Thomas noted the increased response time could mean the difference that causes someone to lose their life or their home.
Mayor, union still posturing
Morrissey acknowledged the concerns expressed by the public are valid, and that he’s “absolutely willing to listen,” but that he can’t avert the closure alone.
“It’s a two-way street,” Mayor Morrissey said of union negotiations. “We’re certainly open to discussions with our fire union on options.”
Morrissey indicated that every city department, except for fire, has learned to do more with less in the wake of the financial downturn. He said the Fire Department has increased by 14 employees, but International Association of Fire Fighter Local 413 President E.J. Dilonardo disagreed with the mayor’s math. Despite opposition from aldermen Pat Curran (R-2), Venita Hervey (D-5) and Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7), Dilonardo was granted the floor.
Although Dilonardo said he was thankful for the delay, he responded: “I would like to point out, though, that the Fire Department, to my best knowledge…is operating 10 firefighters short, one division chief short, and two fire inspectors short right now, and some of that is by agreement with the city on the fire inspectors. The Fire Department is not at its current recommended staffing level.
“We have made concessions,” he argued in response to the mayor’s suggestion that the department hasn’t shared the burden. “We’re always willing to come to the table. We’re always willing to discuss the ways the city can save money, [and how] the Fire Department can save money. I believe the Fire Department was under budget last year with some of the programs that were created and worked hard towards.”
According to Dilonardo, the union previously offered wage freezes for 2009 and 2010, as well as three furlough days per year for each firefighter. He has estimated these concessions would have saved roughly $3 million.
Morrissey said that during the two-week postponement, it is imperative to make the citizens understand just how dire the city’s financial forecast is.
“The decisions that we made weren’t made in haste,” he said of the proposed closures. “They were made with quite a bit of deliberation.”
For the past couple years, the mayor has been wrestling with the union to reduce the number of firefighters per truck from four to three. It appears that issue is coming back to the forefront.
“I’m also cognizant of the fact that we’re the only department in the entire county that’s unable to take advantage of part-time employees to help meet our manning levels,” he added. “These are options and ideas that we’re very willing to look at, and look forward to being able to do that in the near future.”
Although both sides hope to avert the closures through further talks, neither appears willing to bend.
“One thing that we have great difficulty with is changing from four firefighters to three firefighters on a rig,” Dilonardo maintained. “Over the years, the firefighters have taken less benefits and less wages to purchase that fourth firefighter, not only to provide safety for the firefighters, but the safety of the community. We will strive to maintain that, and do everything we can to help out and work towards that goal.”
Aldermen appreciative of reprieve
Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) entered the petition into the record, expressing appreciation for the postponement, noting that 2,302 citizens, so far, have demanded further discussion. Mark said he believes public safety is a priority.
“If we lose our community because of crime, and because of neglect of having burned-out homes, then I think we have some other problems,” he asserted.
Under a proposal by Ald. Bill Robertson (I-14), MFT dollars, used to leverage state and federal dollars for road projects, would be diverted to offset the projected budget deficit. That doesn’t sit well with some west-side aldermen.
Ald. Hervey, for instance, described the notion of maintaining the same level of fire service, while keeping other projects on track, as farcical.
“I think we need to have a little honesty about how we will reach some of the solutions to keeping these fire stations open,” she stated. “It amazes me that people talk about the Morgan Street bridge and that project as though it’s not going to be sacrificed in order to maintain the status quo.”
Hervey appears unwilling to accept the suggestion that citizens on the west side can have their cake and eat it, too.
“If we talk about maintaining four on a truck, and we talk about maintaining every single fire station that we have, you are basically saying: ‘Kill the Morgan Street bridge project. Kill South Main Street. Kill West State Street, and kill some of the other projects that exist in southwest Rockford that are there because of years and years and years of neglect,” she noted. “Hobson’s choice does not work with me. You can’t paint me into a corner and say, ‘Either keep your fire station, or give up the Morgan Street bridge and South Main Street, and demolishing some of the houses.’”
Hervey and Linda McNeely (D-13) are hopeful both sides will reach a compromise in which the west side doesn’t bear the brunt. Both argued the west side has waited a long time for the Morgan Street Bridge, South Main Street and West State Street projects to become a reality.
“Whenever something is taken away, it’s taken away from us,” McNeely said.
Thompson-Kelly disagreed with Dilonardo’s assertion that the Fire Department has made its fair share of sacrifices.
“They will give something, but ask for something else,” she alleged. “They are part of this community, and they should be part of solving the problems in this community.”
Thompson-Kelly acknowledged that no alderman wants to resort to closing fire stations or reducing minimum staffing on fire trucks, “But there are some tough decisions, and we have cut and cut and cut and cut.
“Right now, we’ve got a hole that we’ve got to fill,” she noted. “There’s no place else…to get the dollars that we need. If there was, we’d do it.”
Ald. Nancy Johnson (D-8) was also thankful for the delay, adding that she was uncomfortable with the decision being solely in the hands of the mayor.
“We need to be all-inclusive,” she said of moving forward. “We all need an input.”
Robertson, the city’s former fire chief, had an understandably biased view.
“It’s really hard for me, with my history of where I come from, to stand up and support the closing of a fire station,” he conceded. “Where I come from, we not only need the 13 stations…we really need a couple more.”
He acknowledged, however, a deficit of up to $8 million projected for next year, agreeing with Johnson that everyone needs to put their heads together to find a solution.
“Closing fire stations is the least of my choices,” Robertson noted, turning his attention to defense of the firefighters.
“I know them to be a professional group, full of integrity, full of desire to do what’s in the best interest of this community,” he said, arguing they have made sacrifices over the years. “They are a very generous and a very supportive group, and they love this community. They work for it, they want it to be safe, and I know that they’ll come forward and make it work as best they can.”
Ald. Lenny Jacobson (D-6) predicted: “We’re not going to please everybody. Somebody’s gonna have to give and lose, and it’s gonna have to be a compromise somewhere down the pike. But ultimately, the goal is safety for every individual in this community.”
• Awarding $27,090 to Swinson Material for the fast-track demolitions of five residential properties.
• Approving a $55,963.05 change order for Efficiency Production, of Mason, Mich., for trench box and hydraulic shoring system work, bringing the contract total to $74,617.40.
• Denying a proposed amendment that would allow residents to have outdoor recreational fires for purposes other than cooking. Ald. Pat Curran (R-2) cast the only vote favoring the amendment.
• Awarding a $254,942 bid to Trans Chicago Truck Group, of Elmhurst, for the purchase of two tandem-axel dump trucks and equipment.
• Awarding $55,816 to sole-bidder Rock River Ford for the purchase of a service truck for the Water Division.
• Awarding an $80,297 bid to West Side Tractor Sales for the purchase of a backhoe.
Roland Poska invited the community to take part in what he described as a “historic” aerial photo opportunity July 4 at noon at the intersection of West State and Main streets. Meantime, Poska is also asking the community to sign a declaration against prejudice and violence as part of his ongoing “Great Human Race” project.
Aldermen Joe Sosnowski (R-1) and Bill Timm (R-9) were absent.
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