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No need to close two West-side fire stations, if union steps forward to reduce financial deficit

The highest risk to public safety is closing the two West-side fire stations, not the fourth fireman on each engine. If safety of Rockford citizens is truly the highest priority issue facing the Rockford Fire Department, then closing fire stations is the last resort to balance the financial deficit of $1.8M facing the department.

If the fire department went to three fireman from four per engine, the number of firemen per engine until the year 1999, and as most area fire departments operate now except Rockford, then with the current attrition of 11 or 12 firemen, it would mean almost no one would be laid off, all fire stations would remain open and the safety of the residents, the primary goal, would be met. The firemen are already at three per engine at four stations due to attrition.

The fire union continually states that the city should cut somewhere else. I have not seen any of their forthcoming suggestions. Maybe the Motor Fuel Tax (MFT) should go to the General Fund to make up the cuts being asked of the fire department, but then the city would have to cut the Morgan Street Bridge or the South Main or West State Street projects, due to loss of the matching funds the MFT represents.

A referendum doesn’t stand a chance of passing in this economic recession. Taxpayers are paying enough taxes to their public employees and don’t have anywhere near the same pensions and medical benefits the public employees do.

If the judge issues a temporary restraining order to keep the stations open, will binding arbitration force the city to pass a utility tax of $11M to $12M, the remaining tax that doesn’t require voter approval? Pensions and medical benefit increases would wipe that out in a few years and the city would be right back where it is now. The taxpayers of Rockford, in this economy, can not afford the highest fire department certification that money can buy!

Maybe the city could sell some of its assets?  But who would buy them, and at what price in today’s market?  Besides we saw Blago do that; its a one time deal.  What do you do the following year?

How about a two-tiered pension system, that would surely save a bundle at present day value – because the city would have to contribute less for future benefits each year, and present firefighters would still receive what they have coming. No, the union isn’t for that compromise either.

Other departments are also contributing to the cuts, and saying that staff could be cut from administration budgets is simply a smokescreen, because entire departments could be cut and not make up the deficit the city faces.

The union’s resolve not to consider the proposal by the city must force a realignment of fire department resources to increase the number of ambulances, and their locations to more closely match the almost 50 to 1 medical to structure fire calls and stop the expensive fire apparatus from responding to all medical calls because of their proximity.

Put all ambulances in stations to go to medical calls with the same response time and save money on truck operations. Besides there is no capital for additional trucks and the mileage increases for each of the 15,000 to 18,000 medical calls when a truck is not needed.  The ambulance still takes the patient to the hospital. There is no ride in the cab of the truck; there are no accomodations for the IVs. The costs are ridiculous for this scenario.  There has to be a more efficient modus operandi.

If the fire stations remain open, under the temporary restraining order, the taxpayers will still have to pay the same taxes for less service from some other department, because the city budget would then be balanced using that department’s budget.  It would be police or public works, since the three departments are 90% of the city’s discretionary budget, and the police are also short staffed by at least 20 – 25 positions!

Remember, the restraining order and lawsuit aren’t against the mayor or the city administration, they are indemnified against lawsuits. It’s against every Rockford taxpayer that has to pay whatever the cost to resolve this issue.

If the judge rules that the fire stations can be closed, then the local residents are placed at greater risk, when the solution is the union stepping up to the plate or coming up with specifics of where the city budget should be cut.

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4 Comments

  1. Heywood

    Ted – Normally you are spot on, but you are drinking the Kool Aid on this one. The firefighters gave up over $5 million between last year and this year to buy the 4th guy on each truck. The ink wasn’t even dry on the contract the city AGREED to and the mayor was downstate trying to backdoor around the contract. Why sign an agreement you have no intention of living up to? We had money to bail out the MetroCentre (how many times?), we had money to buy a hockey team, we had money to tear out the pedestrian mall just so we can close it whenever anything is going on in downtown Rockford, we have money to buy buildings left and right, we’re hemorrhaging money from TIF districts underperforming (but the mayor’s friends and family are putting that money that should be going to the city in their pockets), it’s just like I tell my kids – take care of your needs first, then take care of your wants. We need the police to protect us from the criminal element that is taking over our city (despite Larry, Patty, and Chetty telling us crime is down) and we need the firemen (and fireladies) to protect us from fire and medical issues.

  2. Ted Biondo

    Heywood – I appreciate your comments. However, I only drink Kool Aid when I need something sweet to cover the taste of these municipal finances, which are a bitter pill to swallow.

    First, this confrontation isn’t just about the Mayor and the fire department. It also includes the taxpayers and will they support any more taxes that an arbitrator says we have to pay! You can’t just isolate out the mayor and his administration and make them the divide and conquer target. The target of paying for government at whatever level, local, state, and national also involves the ones who pay for everything. The government has no money – only what taxpayers pay.

    I did some more checking and you are right about the $4.5 – $5M over the last two years. Whether it was to buy the 4th firefighter on each engine (there are 8 engines 8*3 shifts = 24 people) is a matter of having been present during the negotiations, which I was not.

    The city (and Taxpayers) signed what the arbitrator ruled which included the status quo on pensions, in addition to the freezes in pay. The pensions that are increasing by millions each year, cannot be sustained. The state legislature has to change the law covering their unfunded mandate to all municipalities to pay for pensions that are totally out of line with the private workers and taxpayers.

    Cities all over the state are going to Springfield to request a change in the pension formulas, not just Rockford, because the pensions are unsustainable. At a minmum there has to be a change in pensions for new public employees!

    The MetroCenter, which I originally voted against, the hockey team, the pedestrian mall, the buildings that are being purchased, the roads that are being fixed all come from separate funds that are not part of the General Fund, 90% of which goes to pay public safety and public works salaries and operations. This has been explained many times before but people seem to selectively forget that fact.

    If the city were to borrow money to pay operating costs (salaries and pensions), they should be charged with malfeasance! Therefore, city administration is trying to develop plans to bring jobs to our area, so that there will be new taxes to pay for the services of police and fire and public works – you can’t just keep raising taxes on the people of Rockford – we have one of the highest tax rates as a percentage of home value in the country. Besides the commercial and retail business pay for more than the residential per unit.

    See link to previous post:
    http://blogs.e-rockford.com/tedbiondo/2010/06/17/property-taxes-in-rockford-still-among-highest-in-nation-despite-tax-foundation-rankings/

    You are right on, however, concerning failed TIFs taking dollars away from General Fund to pay off debts and bonds that weren’t totally supported by the development. The TIF failed. But that has developed over many years and throughout many mayoral administrations. The debts have been incurred and must be repaid or the city defaults on municipal bonds! I will discuss TIFs in a series of future posts.

    However, I will not take part in character assssination, as to anyone’s motives with respect to these TIFs, only the facts. I think your comments are way out of line in accusing people involved without any evidence whatsoever!

    Finally, I agree that we need more police, despite any statistics showing that crime is being reduced and we need the fireman to provide safety for our homes, and emergency treatment for the sick, but Rockford can not support the taxes required to bring fire trucks to every medical emergency in addition to the ambulance. There has to be a more efficient way to respond to 50 times as many medical emergencies as structure fires through use of ambulances stationed at each firehouse, etc. The taxpayers can’t continue to pay these high property taxes to support the status quo.

    How many residents do you think would support a referendum for an tax increase to just keep the status quo and keep giving more money to salaries and pensions, when 15% don’t even have jobs, 33% are at the poverty level in the county with most being in Rockford, or are taking cuts in pay, not just freezes?

  3. shawnnews

    http://rockfordrhetoric.blogspot.com/?zx=bee936ac27acf58a
    You’re mentioned in an aside in a local blog, Ted.

  4. Ted Biondo

    Thanks for the heads up Shawnnews.

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