ELYRIA — The latest cuts to the Elyria Fire Department will take the safety force down to the bare bones, and that is an uncomfortable place to be, Mayor Bill Grace said Tuesday.
Within the next 30 days, eight firefighters will be let go from the department, the latest casualties in the city’s battle to balance the general fund budget.
Their departure will leave the department with just 42 members — half of what the city charter calls for the Fire Department to be at.
“One call will put the department out of service,” Fire Chief Rich Benton said. “When these cuts are made, anytime you hear the siren going down the road, know that the Fire Department is not available at that time.”
In terms of fire protection, more is definitely better, Grace said.
“At best, I think 10 firefighters will work on a given day; with a strong frequency, the number will be less than that,” he said. “Clearly, that is not a good place to be.”
But the city is quickly running out of money and the only way to keep the general fund from dipping into the red is by cutting into the work force, he said.
“This is not at all what we would like to do, buts it’s based entirely on finances,” he said.
Safety Service Director Chris Eichenlaub said the cuts to the Fire Department are needed because the department is set to go over budget by nearly $300,000, mainly due to overtime. Aside from roughly $76,000 Benton was able to save from his expense budget, the Fire Department’s budget was balanced by a $100,000 supplement from the water fund for hydrant flushing and the roughly $125,000 that will saved from the layoffs.
In addition, the city has to reduce the general fund budget by another $450,000 to stay in line with revenue streams. To accomplish that, the city jail is slated to close within the same time period. As a result of the closing, 16 employees will lose their jobs.
“I knew I had an uphill battle when I took this job, and I take it seriously,” said Benton, who has been on the job less than a year. “I am accountable in everything I do to the citizens of Elyria. But we are almost to the point where we will be spectators ourselves at fires. We will just be on the other side of the yellow tape.”
To compound problems, Benton said he walked into a financial mess when he was promoted on March 30.
By that time, he said, the year’s $200,000 overtime budget was 64 percent gone, spent mainly on the Lorain County Community College fire and Assistant Chief Glenn Saddler, who was being compensated from the overtime fund for serving as interim chief.
“That left me $71,600 for the rest of the year,” he said.
Since then, the department has burned through the rest of the overtime budget and then some.
Within a month of Benton’s elevation, eight firefighters were laid off and eight officers were demoted in rank and pay. Before being promoted, Benton said, he told City Council that the demotions they ultimately voted to approve would compound the overtime costs because any time an officer is off, lower-ranked firefighter is paid three hours of overtime for acting above their class.
Benton said the figures prove him right, as $36,000 has been spent on acting officer pay.
“I know some people would say —why have acting officer pay, but somebody has to be in charge, and that person is held accountable for their actions,” he said. “We can’t have all firefighters showing up to a scene with no one to take charge.”
The rest of the overtime was consumed by fires in the community, including the fatal fire on Hawthorne Street.
“It was cutting everything possible that got us this far,” he said. “Now, the guys are sitting around wondering who will be next.”
To say morale is low in the Fire Department would be an understatement, said Dean Marks, president of the local firefighters union.
“We’re talking about guys with 10 years of service,” he said. “They have homes, kids and families. They are wondering what else they will do.”
Marks said the union is still looking at what it could do to stop the layoffs.
In February, when the first round of layoffs was announced, the union sued the city. However, a judge ruled he could not interfere with the city’s plans and the layoffs took place in April.
“Really I’m focusing on educating the public and getting the correct facts out there,” he said. “(Monday night,) I asked Council members who had never come down to the station to see how things were going. On Tuesday, two actually did.”
Those were City Council members Mike Lotko, D-at large, and Tom Callahan, D-at large, who met with Marks to discuss layoffs and the fire management audit in advance of a Sept. 9 public meeting with the McGrath Group.