Council gives reprieve to Rich Hill firehouse

Residents and community officials rally outside Engine Co. 294 in May to protest then-proposed cuts to the Fire Department's budget. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Joe Anuta

City Council members prevented 20 firehouses from cutting their hours last week, which caused residents of Richmond Hill to breathe a sigh of relief.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg had originally called for closing 20 of the city’s firehouses at night as part of a $585 million budget cut for the 2010 fiscal year. And Wendy Bowne, president of the Richmond Hill Block Association, said the contentious history between the city and Engine Co. 294, at 101-02 Jamaica Ave. caused her concern.

The firehouse was shuttered in January 1991by former Mayor David Dinkins and reopened under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in February 1994, only to be threatened with closure again in May this year.

“Basically, every time firehouses are on the chopping block, they always seem to pick that one,” Bowne said. “Based on past experience we get a little nervous.”

Bowne said the firehouse is especially crucial for Richmond Hill because of the flammable wood frame houses that populate the neighborhood.

The firehouse’s operating hours were spared after Council members proposed alternate cuts to the budget during a 13-hour-long hearing with the mayor and city agencies, according to Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), chairwoman of the Fire & Criminal Justice Committee.

“We had to do a hearing where the fire commissioner came and said that if we close fire companies, response times will increase and people’s lives will be put in danger,” she said. “The mayor understood that now wasn’t the time.”

But Mother Nature might have played a hand as well.

“I believe that the snowstorm was the icing on the cake,” she added. “With all the stress that the FDNY and [Emergency Medical Service] were under, God forbid we had 20 less firehouses.”

Instead of cutting hours, the Council decided to trim $25.2 million from other less-essential areas, including a $4.5 million reduction in salaries for school IT consultants, some of which take home more than $500,000 a year from the city.

But for Bowne and the residents of Richmond Hill, the reprieve is temporary.

The budget shift only lasts until June, when the 2011 budget expires. In March, the 2012 budget will be decided and closing firehouses will again be put on the table.

“I feel good, but we were told that all the firehouses were saved when they had passed the last budget [in May],” Bowne said. “So it was pretty shocking to hear that the administration was once again thinking about making cuts to firehouses within a couple of months.”

But according to Crowley, budget cuts have been proposed in the past where the firehouse was not on the chopping block.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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