November 24, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria holds firm on firefighter cuts


Mayor Grace says he won’t seek tax hike to restore staffing

ELYRIA — Mayor Bill Grace said Tuesday that he won’t recommend seeking a tax hike to boost staffing at the fire department.

Despite receiving a barrage of phone calls from residents concerned about safety after dropping the department’s minimum staffing level to 14 from 17, Grace said a tax won’t be considered because voters have rejected three such efforts since 2004.

 
BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE
Elyria firefighter Pat Monda holds one of the “station closed” signs that the mayor ordered removed from Fire Station No. 2 on Broad Street.

The new staffing levels might become permanent, Grace said.

“I don’t see it being any different next year,” Grace said. “This may be a permanent action.”

Grace ordered the minimum staffing level dropped as of Monday as a way to curb the department’s overtime. Before his edict, firefighters were called in on overtime to staff the stations if fewer than 17 firefighters were on duty, which quickly drained the pool of money budgeted for overtime.

Fire Chief John Zielinski said he had hoped that Grace would support seeking a tax increase to fund the fire department. He said he thinks the cutbacks are unfair, and that his department is bearing the burden of the city’s tight budget.

Somewhere, there has to be $567,000 available in the city’s budget that could be added to the department’s budget to keep staffing levels at 17 per shift, he said.

But city Auditor Ted Pileski said that just isn’t the case.

The tight budget is growing tighter, he said, with income tax revenue predicted to be down by about $700,000 — offsetting the extra $600,000 the city received from the state in local government funds, he said.

“You take a step forward and you take a step back,” Pileski said.

Next year, the biggest priority will be to renew the half-percent income tax set to expire in June 2009, which generates $6.3 million annually, Pileski said. The temporary five-year tax has been renewed for decades, but voters have rejected efforts to make it permanent, Pileski said.

The firefighters brought the issue to the forefront Monday by staging a picket outside of the Broad Street fire station, which will be closed whenever staffing levels fall below 17 firefighters per shift.

On Tuesday, Grace made them remove a large sign proclaiming that the station is closed, saying the sign is misleading. The station isn’t always closed, he said, and the fire chief and fire prevention officers are based there on weekdays, he said.

The last time Grace dropped the minimum staffing level to 14 — from November 2004 to August 2005 — the station was closed about 40 percent of the time.

Grace, who said he’s received about 100 calls that split evenly between supporting his decision and urging manpower to be restored, has signed on to seek federal funding to hire 10 new firefighters. Council will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday to try to get the application ready to meet the Friday deadline.

The grant covers about $20,000 of the $72,000 annual costs of a firefighter’s salary and benefits. But even if the city is awarded the money, he said the city would be hard-pressed to come up with the remainder if the grant mandates a higher overall manpower.

Zielinski said he’s glad the city will be seeking the federal grant, saying “we’ve been needing to hire people for a long time.”

“I’ve lost 15 people,” Zielinski said, referencing what has happened during his six years as chief.

Council Finance Committee members Jack Baird, R-at-large, Forrest Bullocks, D-2nd Ward, and Herman Larkins, D-5th Ward, all said Tuesday they supported Grace’s cutbacks.

“The auditor said they spent all of their money allocated for overtime,” Larkins said.

A fourth member of the finance committee, Eddie Mitchell, D-6th Ward, said the cuts were too severe. The other committee member, Kenneth Burkhard, D-7th Ward, said cutting three firefighters from a shift will hurt, but that it is Grace’s call to make to keep the budget in line.

Contact Cindy Leise at 653-6250 or cleise@chroniclet.com.