By Alex Davidson
Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing to lay off 5,401 city workers and simultaneously close two firehouses in Queens as part of his plan to rescue the city from financial ruin as budget negotiations for the next fiscal year get underway.
Engine Co. 293 in Woodhaven and Engine Co. 261 in Long Island City are slated to be shuttered as part of the mayor's plan to eliminate eight firehouses around the city.
The mayor announced his decision to ax a wide range of city employees, from 1,958 school aides to 941 sanitation workers, through notices sent to 21 unions which by law must be notified 30 days in advance of any planned staff reductions. The layoffs would be the first since Mayor David Dinkins trimmed the city's payroll back in the early 1990's.
Bloomberg, who has met the Uniformed Firefighters Association and other unions on how to limit the impact of layoffs and firehouse closures, said the city is in too desperate financial straits to wait for the groups to agree on a deal to save the 5,401 jobs.
“Now the situation is bad enough that even if we did get some of the help we need from the unions, it isn't going to prevent the next set of cuts,” Bloomberg told reporters in Manhattan.
The mayor had asked the city's municipal unions to agree to concessions amounting to $600 million as part of his goal to present a balanced budget to the state.
The city is facing an estimated budget deficit of $3.3 billion that includes revenues collected from a new 18.5 percent increase in property taxes. Negotiations are now starting for the next fiscal year that begins July 1, the next 12 months for which Bloomberg has budgeted revenues from the layoffs and firehouse closures.
New York City Central Labor Council President and state Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing) said he thought the past few weeks of negotiations between municipal labor and the city were productive and yielded alternatives to layoffs and service cuts. He said he is hoping to reinstate the commuter tax to save jobs.
“In this dire economy, we should not add more people to the list of unemployed,” McLaughlin said. “Now is the time to think creatively to come up with solutions, not just cut jobs and services.”
Councilman Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), who has led the charge to stop the proposed closing of Engine Co. 293 at 89-40 87th St. in Woodhaven, said the mayor completely ignored the unions and City Council's proposals on alternative ways to raise revenue to avoid layoffs and firehouse closures.
“These were credible alternatives that could have been considered,” said Addabbo, who along with other council members presented a plan two weeks ago to raise the $10.8 million needed to save the firehouses. “The decision by the mayor is an unfortunate one.”
Addabbo said the upcoming budget process will give City Council members and union officials a second chance to negotiate with Bloomberg. He said he is planning a letter-writing campaign, firehouse rally and other community activism events during the 45-day period before the proposed firehouse closures take effect.
“This is not the end of the story,” said Addabbo, who disagreed with the vote taken by a blue ribbon panel charged with examining the Fire Department's budget. The panel recommended the closure of eight firehouses throughout the city.
State Sen. Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) and state Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio (D-Richmond Hill) wrote a joint letter to Bloomberg Tuesday in which they suggested the elimination of public financing of election campaigns or city-sponsored anti-smoking advertisements to raise money to save the firehouses from closing.
Stephen Cassidy, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, agreed with borough politicians and said he hopes to negotiate a better deal in the upcoming weeks. He said closing firehouses would jeopardize the city's readiness to react to a terrorist attack.
“While the U.S. is engaged in a fierce war in Iraq, and New York City continues to remain the No. 1 terrorist target, the timing of this decision could not have been worse for public safety, and for firefighters,” he said.
Engine Co. 261 in Long Island City will be terminated, but the firehouse building will stay open with another ladder company manning the station. Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Woodside) is planning a rally to save the firehouse at 37-20 29th St. at noon on Sunday.
“This is not about quality of life we're talking about – this is life” Gioia said. He noted that Engine Co. 261 is a first-responder to fire calls at two of the city's largest public housing developments, Ravenswood and Queensbridge.
The firehouse at 617 Central Avenue in Brooklyn that serves part of Queens is also slated for closure.
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 156