Faced with the possibility of laying off firefighters to meet proposed budget cuts, Columbus Councilor Gary Allen recommended restoring about $700,000 in Columbus Department of Fire and Emergency Services funding for fiscal 2014, temporarily at least.
Under Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s proposed Fiscal 2014 budget, all departments were asked to take their Fiscal 2013 budgets and then reduce them 1.5 percent. That would have taken the fire department budget from $24.67 million down to about $24.3 million.
But Fire Chief Jeff Meyer submitted a proposed budget of almost $25.6 million, an increase of over $900,000 instead of a reduction. After agreeing to some cuts, he asked councilors to restore about $1.17 million -- $966,000 for salaries and about $200,000 for operations.
After being told of the consequences of not restoring the cuts, Allen proposed that about $700,000, enough to avoid laying off 14 firefighter/EMT/paramedics, be put on the committee’s “add-delete list” Funds placed on that list are tentatively budgeted, dependent upon councilors finding a source for the funds at the end of the budget process.
Meyer told councilors that laying off 14 firefighter positions could cause dire consequences:
* Longer response times, which increases risk to people and property.
* Lower insurance ratings, which could lead to higher homeowner premiums.
* Jeopardized accreditation.
* Possibly closing of less busy stations.
Allen's motion restored the salary funding but not the $200,000 in additional operational funding Meyer sought.
The operational cuts would be realized by trimming spending on utilities, training, travel, auto parts, physicals and by postponing promotions, Meyer said.
“We’re part of the big team, too. There are cuts that we’re going to have to make,” Meyer said. “Times are tough. We are optimistic that funding will be made available to the department to provide the services we provide to the citizens and visitors to Columbus. But at the same time, we’re going to prepare in the event that we have to make modifications.”
Tomlinson said all budget cuts are tough to make, but making cuts to public safety missions is particularly hard.
“It’s the core mission of city government, the protection of the citizens,” Tomlinson said. “But it’s becoming tougher to fund every year out of a stagnant general fund.”
That core mission of protection could be put at risk if the department isn’t sufficiently funded, Meyer said.
“You may never ever think you’ll need a firefighter, EMT or paramedic,” Meyer said. “But when you do, and you look at your watch, we’ll probably get there within four or five minutes. But even one minute is a long time when it’s an emergency.”