November 19, 2002

City Committee Meets On Fire Issues, Budget

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The Budget and Administration Committee of the Ithaca Common Council met Monday for their monthly meeting to hear issues presented by Fire Chief Brian Wilbur, City Controller Steven Thayer and City of Ithaca Mayor Alan Cohen ’81.

Wilbur appeared first before the committee to outline the changes being made in the Ithaca Fire Department’s (IFD) procedures for dealing with false alarms. Wilbur outlined the plan by the Fire Department to reword their rules to increase the penalties for false alarms caused by contractors as well intentional false alarms.

The issue of false alarms by students has been one that the Fire Department has had large problems with this semester.

“Our rate of alarms has increased to the point where even the normal level of false alarms has significantly impaired our ability to provide coverage,” Wilbur said. “We have to cut back on false alarms and increasing the penalties will do that.”

Wilbur referred specifically in the meeting to the case of an intoxicated individual who discharged a fire extinguisher as prank, causing the fire department to report to the alarm.

“We couldn’t get that individual with false alarm charges, at most he would get tampering with a fire alarm. We would like to change the wording in the rules so that we would also be able to charge such cases with pulling a false alarm,” Wilbur said.

While both tampering with a fire alarm and causing a false alarm are punishable with a maximum fine of $250 through the city code, the latter offense is also punishable through the state penal code.

“Through the state penal code, the judge can confer more significant penalties, including restitution for such offenses. And that’s what we are looking for, so the judge has more options with what to do with these cases,” Wilbur said.

Committee member Dan Cogan expressed concern at the wording of the new rules, which state that “no person shall intentionally cause a false alarm.”

“Those are legitimate concerns,” Wilbur said responding to Cogan. “You have to rely on our ability to be discrete and not punish the person who is living their life versus the person who is intoxicated.”

James M. Marceda ’05, who discharged the fire extinguisher alluded to by Wilbur, August 16th at his residence at 777 Stewart Ave., described the circumstances leading to the incident.

“I was trying to put out a cigarette and things just got out of hand,” Marceda said.

Despite what he described as an “early spike in false alarms,” Wilbur added that the current percentage of false alarms, 4.6 percent, is normal.

The other issues facing the council stemmed from this year’s budget process.

The city faced large budget cuts combined with a property tax hike of 13.6 percent, the largest in recent history. Thayer and Mayor Cohen proposed the city’s unrestricted contingency funds, a sum of approximately $27,000, be allocated to the Community Service Agencies (CSA), which were completely cut out of this year’s budget. Council members Patricia Pryor and Paulette Manos both questioned the idea of using the money to fund outside agencies when the city has eliminated so many positions in its own departments.

“I’m not saying the 26,000 would save a position but I want to be able to look various employees in the eye and say we saved as much money as would and we still couldn’t save your position,” Pryor said.

Council member David Whitmore ’96 disagreed with Pryor’s sentiments.

“I think we should support giving them [CSA] the 25,000. I supported giving them the usual $75,000 during the budget process but it was voted down by the Common Council,” Whitmore said. “I think giving them this, which is only a third of the normal amount, would be a good compromise. They are important resources and need our support.”

The Council resolved to discuss the issue again in January when they had a clearer picture of exactly how much money would be available.

The last issue on the agenda was presented by Thayer, who expressed his concerns at the inability of the budget process to accommodate the drastic conditions of this year’s budget. All of the committee members echoed his opinions.

“The process wasn’t adequate. It was designed for a moderate tax increase like we have had for the last five or six years,” Whitmore said. “What we had this year was a catastrophic budget with massive tax hikes and reduced state support and the one month budget process did not give us time enough to look at cutting jobs and reducing expenses.”

The committee resolved to construct a sub-committee of three council members, three city department heads, the mayor and the city controller to re-evaluate the budget process. The Budget and Administration Committee meets monthly, with the next meeting scheduled for December 16th.

All Committee members also serve on the Ithaca Common Council.

Archived article by Gautham Nagesh