Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fire Companies Again on Chopping Block

Mayor Seeks to Close $4.9 Billion Gap in Preliminary Budget

By Conor Greene

With a sense of déjà vu, local elected officials are ready to fight back against Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to eliminate at least 20 fire companies in an effort to close the $4.9 billion gap in the city’s $63.6 billion budget.

The fight is a familiar one for City Council members – last year’s budget also included the elimination of 16 fire companies, including Engine 271 on Himrod Street. Those closures were eventually avoided when Council members used discretionary funding to restore the FDNY budget. However, that was a one-time solution that is unlikely to be repeated year after year, especially with the number of closings increased by four.

Last Thursday, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled his preliminary budget for 2011, which includes reductions to almost every city agency. However, as bad as it is, he warned that deeper cuts would be needed if Governor David Paterson’s proposed budget is adopted. That would result in an additional $1.3 billion gap, forcing the firing thousands of city employees, including 8,500 teachers and 3,150 police.

“New Yorkers continue to feel the harsh impact of the deepest national recession in more than 60 years, and as many businesses and families continue cutting back on their budgets, so too must city government,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “Because of the early steps we took to diversify our economy and keep our fiscal house in order, we’ve avoided the very worst-case scenario, but we still face a very large deficit that will require very difficult decisions.”

However, as bad as the economic situation is, and as difficult as the decisions are, local Council members all say that cuts to emergency services shouldn’t even be considered.

Immediately after the preliminary budget was released, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who is chair of the fire and criminal justice committee, released a statement vowing to fight against the closings of any fire companies. “It is alarming that so many fire company closures are even being proposed in the mayor’s preliminary budget,” said Crowley. “We have a responsibility to our taxpaying New Yorkers that when it comes to safety, we deliver.”

Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) said haven’t been announced, “we do know that every year when we go through the budget dance there is always one on the chopping block that would affect our community.”

He agreed that funding for emergency services “should be baseline in the budget and not up for negotiations… That should be standard, and if we have to make cuts outside that to balance the budget, so be it, but you can’t balance the budget by putting lives at risk, and that’s what the city engages in every year around this time… There are going to be cuts that will be painful, but we have to minimize the negative impact it is going to have on people, and in my opinion, closing firehouses and laying off cops is just unconscionable.”

Crowley stressed that any closings will have a ripple effect across the city. “When you start closing one company here and one there, you’re spreading the whole service thinner,” she said. “I believe we have to maintain a level of protection that is critical for all New Yorkers, and when you start closing companies, it impacts the safety of the whole city.”

Last year, the Council was able to avoid the closures by reallocating $17 million in discretionary funding to the FDNY budget. This year’s preliminary mayoral budget cuts about $22 million needed to keep the companies open, which Crowley called a “drop in the bucket” considering the city’s budget is more than $60 billion. “It is tough budget times, but I firmly believe the budget for 2011 is not nearly as bad as it was anticipated to be,” she said. “The economy is showing signs of improvement and anticipated tax revenue is higher than anticipated.” As a result, she hopes that non-essential spending will be able to be cut from the FDNY budget over the next few months.

Newly-appointed FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said recently that closing even a few companies will require an overhaul of the city’s network of engine and ladder companies. “If we have to close 20 companies, which is a six percent reduction in the number of companies we have, it is going to tax us,” he told the New York Times. “It is certainly the most challenging thing we have faced in decades.”

Several other Council members joined the chorus demanding that the fire companies are removed from the potential chopping block. “This is a very serious problem. Public safety is something we can’t cut corners on,” said Karen Koslowitz (D-Forest Hills). “Fire companies are something we should not close, or even think about closing. It is not an option as far as I’m concerned.”

In a statement, Councilwoman Diana Reyna (D-Ridgewood) said: “In these tough economic times we must use our discretion and act strategically, going line-by-line to protect the funding that allows the brave men and women of the FDNY to continue to serve our residents with the quality and excellence they have come to expect.”

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