Ithaca, NY – The President of the Ithaca Professional Fire Fighters Association (IPFFA) says that Mayor Svante Myrick made some “misleading” comments about recent cuts to the fire departments budget.
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In October, Myrick told the Voice that the budget was largely an uninteresting “hold-steady budget.” There was a small cut to the fire department’s budget, but Myrick said he’d spoken to local firefighters and they said they could handle their responsibilities at the reduced funding level.
Trevor Peyus, President of the IPFFA, characterizes the mayor’s statement as “misleading,” saying that the mayor did not contact the IPFFA at all. In contrast to the mayor’s statement, Peyus suggests that the department’s “staffing levels are incredibly low, to where we have to adjust how we operate… and that affects the folks that we serve.”
However, Mayor Svante Myrick says that the cuts are small and that the Fire Chief, Tom Parsons, says the department can handle the call volume at current staffing levels. The new budget represents a roughly 0.5 percent spending reduction.
Peyus expressed frustration with a lack of communication between the union, the fire chief and City Hall when tackling the budget. He said the IPPFA, “has been intentionally left out of any 2016 budgetary discussions, and by default, not allowed an opportunity to express any thoughts or concerns, a decision we strongly disagree with.”
In 2015, Peyus says the IPPFA attempted to “have open and honest budgetary discussions with Fire Chief Tom Parsons but were denied access to the Fire Chief’s proposed budget.” They filed a Freedom of Information request for the budget which was initially denied but later approved by the mayor. Peyus says that when the document was eventually received, “it was heavily redacted, containing no financial data.”
Peyus explained that in the past, “the Union leadership has had an integral part in these [budgetary] discussions,” but, “under the current leadership of the Fire Department, the Union has been excluded from all of these conversations.”
While the budget cut was a relatively small one – roughly 0.5 percent – Peyus says the real crux of the matter is what the cuts and continued staffing problem say about the city’s priorities. He says that this marks the fifth straight year that the department has seen such cuts. The department is down seven positions since 2008. Peyus is concerned about what will happen if those trends continue.
Since the initial complaint, Myrick has met with members of the firefighters union, but Peyus says his concerns have not been alleviated.
Mayor Myrick’s response
Mayor Myrick provided some justification for the budget cut, saying that the department was anticipating some retirements and newly hired firefighters do not make as much as veterans.
Looking at the bigger picture, Myrick noted that every department is always asking for more of the budget, quipping, “The Department of Public Works would repave every street if they could.” Ultimately, the budgetary demands of the various departments have to be balanced against the burden on the taxpayer, Myrick explained.
As to the staffing issue, Myrick said that the Fire Chief was confident that the department could handle operating at their current level. According to the mayor, most of the calls that the fire department responds to are medical calls that don’t require a great deal of manpower. Bangs Ambulance responds to those medical calls as well – and while they charge for their service, the fire department does not, making responding to every call impractical.
The mayor said that major structure fires that require more manpower, like the one that consumed the Chapter House earlier this year, are rare – generally only a few a year. There has never been a situation where the department had to respond to more than one fire at a time. Myrick also said that at current capacity, the department is able to respond quickly, and they have a 100 percent response rate.
Are volunteers the answer?
The issues that Myrick outlined are why he has been in support of recruiting more volunteer firefighters. He said it doesn’t make sense to be paying so many people for around the clock coverage when volunteers could help provide the needed manpower in serious emergencies.
Myrick had a lot of good things to say about volunteerism. He noted that many current firefighters had first been volunteers, including the current fire chief. “I think volunteerism is important, because people care about community in a different way when they volunteer. They feel like they have a stake in it.”
Peyus, however, suggests that it’s not as simple as that. He said he was open to utilizing more volunteers. “If there was a pool of individuals who would volunteer and train, then yes. The reality is, there aren’t people lining up,” he said.
Aside from the rigorous training required, Peyus said, “As a volunteer, you have to put own your life aside to respond to a call. That’s asking quite a bit of someone. People just don’t have that kind of time.”
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