October 9, 2012

Ithaca Firefighters, Police: Kill This Budget

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The health and safety of Ithaca’s firefighters, police officers and citizens will be imperiled if Common Council approves Mayor Svante Myrick’s ’09 proposed budget for 2013, dozens of officers said at a public meeting Tuesday.

Myrick’s proposed budget — which will reduce the number of firefighters by four and the number of police officers by about nine — was met by an intense backlash at the meeting. With the number of emergency calls soaring, Ithaca Fire Department Lieutenant Tom Deis said the cuts could decimate the department.

“Firefighters will be put in a position to choose between [protecting] our safety and [protecting] the safety of the people we serve — please do not put us in a position to have to choose,” Deis said, noting that firefighters will always put the safety of civilians first. “Cutting us lower than our current levels will have serious ramifications … firefighters’ safety will suffer.”

Deis added that the department recognizes the precariousness of the city’s budget crisis.

Should Common Council approve Myrick’s budget in November, the safety of an already strained police force is also at stake, several officers said.

Kevin Slattery, an IPD officer who has lived in Ithaca for more than 30 years, begged the council to stop the mayor’s budget.

“We are at our bare minimum right now,” Slattery said. “The bottom line is there are no more areas in which we can make cuts.”

Under Myrick’s plan, the fire department would lose two firefighters and see the closure of its fire prevention bureau, which would in turn transfer the responsibility for fire inspections to the building department. Additionally, two vacancies in the fire department would go unfilled.

Meanwhile, Myrick’s budget proposes the elimination of nine and a quarter positions in the police department. Myrick noted that none of these cuts — which he said would save the city more than a million dollars — would come from layoffs.

While recognizing the potential severity of the cuts, Myrick defended his proposed budget, asserting that public safety is “still our number one expenditure by a long shot.”

The city faces a $3 million budget deficit, and Myrick stressed that in closing the gap he is seeking both revenue increases — through higher property taxes and other measures — and reduced expenditures. He emphasized that he took the concerns raised by city residents and officials into consideration when making what he described as a “very painful budget.”

“Everything you have told me weighs heavily on my conscience,” Myrick said. “I tried to be honest about the fact that with multimillion dollar deficits occurring each year, pain could only be deferred for so long.”

Although recognizing that the city “needs more officers, not less,” Myrick said that the costs of maintaining the fire and police departments have skyrocketed over the years, increasing by $4 and $5 million, respectively, from 12 years ago.

“We can’t … we can’t afford the amount of personnel that we have,” Myrick said. “I don’t think we can.”

Yet Myrick’s defense seemed to fall on deaf ears, as officials said that firefighters and police officers are already stretched thin in protecting the city.

IPD Lieutenant Vince Monticello said that “calls are up more than I’ve ever seen in my 30 years at the police department.”

Whereas in 1990, the IPD received 14,000 calls for help, in 2011, it received more than 21,000, he said.

Officer Slattery added that of all the tools a police officer has, “whether it be our pepper spray or our baton … the most important one we have is our fellow officer.”

Cutting the police department when “all we have is each other” would put officers’ lives in danger, Slattery said.

Myrick’s move to transfer the responsibility of conducting fire inspections to the building department also drew ire among residents and officials.

Frances Weissman, a city resident of more than 30 years, expressed skepticism that the move would benefit the city, saying personnel in the building department will “inevitably miss dangerous conditions and circumstances” that those in IFD would have caught.

Myrick, however, said that transferring the responsibility for conducting fire inspections to the building department will allow the city to simplify the inspection process.

“These are people who inspect buildings for a living and have for decades — they know everything there is to know about buildings,” Myrick said in an interview Tuesday. He added that members of the building department have assured him that they can handle the increase in requests.

Yet firefighters maintained that it is still beneficial to have their officers conducting fire inspections, noting that the knowledge gained during these checks often proves valuable during fires and emergencies.

Myrick, however, maintained that it is unlikely that the firefighter who did the inspection will also happen to respond to a call at that specific building. Even if this is the case occasionally, he said, a streamlined inspection process will improve all city departments.

Still, other residents expressed concern that their safety will be imperiled by a decrease in police officers on the streets and firefighters responding to emergency calls.

Decrying the cuts, Weissman said, “I fear this budget … is the price of a potential tragedy.”

City residents are already unable to access the police department for help on weekends, said Fay Gougakis, a city resident.

Heeding city residents’ concerns but stressing the necessity of the budget cuts he has proposed, Myrick said that the cuts do not only touch the IPD and IFD.

Nine vacancies will also go unfulfilled in the Department of Public Works, and funding for the city’s department of building and its department of information technology — among others — also stand to be slashed in what Myrick described as “extremely difficult choices” made to rein in a multimillion dollar deficit.

He added that his budget curbs the city’s recent dramatic escalation in property taxes. While recent budgets raised taxes by as much as nine and six percent, Myrick’s budget raises taxes by approximately two percent.

Unlike a national income tax, he said, taxes imposed by the City of Ithaca disproportionately hurt middle and low income residents.

“I really have a passion for the people who are struggling to get by … raising taxes will hurt those people the most,” he said.

With city rules mandating that Common Council vote on a final version of the budget by the first week of November, Alderperson J.R. Clairborne (D-2nd Ward) said that council members face a formidable task in the next few weeks.

“I hope we can find some kind of middle ground solution … but we definitely have our work cut out for us,” he said.

Original Author: Jeff Stein