Say Mayor’s Budget Endangers 20 Units
Budget season in New York City began last Thursday, Feb. 9, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his preliminary budget-and once again, the closing of 20 Fire Department units is among a host of cutbacks proposed in the financial plan.
The mayor explained that the budget he plans would close a $2 billion deficit without any tax increases or major layoffs of vital city workers such as teachers, police officers or firefighters. It was noted that the preliminary budget “relies on $6 billion in savings for” the 2013 fiscal year “generated through 11 rounds of deficit-closing actions taken by city agencies since 2007.”
“It is a responsible budget that continues to make responsible spending cuts, while protecting the core services and investments that have helped our city to weather the national recession better than most other places,” Bloomberg said last Thursday. “But we face a ticking time bomb in rising pension costs. The only way we will be able to continue to pay for top-quality public schools, fire and police protection and other services New Yorkers need-and also to protect the very financial security of the pension system city workers rely on-is to adopt real pension reform.”
However, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, in her own statement, said that the city’s legislature “is concerned that the proposed budget would again result in the closure of 20 firehouses, along with major cuts to public libraries and cultural institutions.” She indicated that the Council is “fully committed to protecting the essential services that New Yorkers depend on.”
According to sources familiar with the situation, the mayor’s executive budget omits the funding provided by the City Council last year to thwart the proposed Fire Department cutbacks.
The City Council and mayor must agree upon a final budget before the current fiscal year concludes on June 30, as required by state law. The 2013 fiscal year begins on July 1.
Over the past several budget negotiation cycles, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed closing Fire Department units-or reducing the hours of operation of certain companies-to help close the budget gap.
Each time, the plans drew stringent opposition from the City Council as well as the unions representing firefighters and supervising officers alike, the Uniformed Firefighters Association (UFA) and Uniformed Fire Officers Association (UFOA).
At one point during last year’s negotiations, as previously reported in the Times Newsweekly, the Fire Department released a list of 20 companies that were on the chopping block, including Engine Co. 294 in Richmond Hill, Ladder Co. 128 in Long Island City, Engine Co. 206 in East Williamsburg and Engine Co. 218 in Bushwick. Firefighters, elected officials and community residents held rallies at local fire companies in danger of being closed to voice their opposition to the plan.
But in the end, last year’s proposed cutbacks-and threatened Fire Department closures in previous budget cycles-were thwarted in the final city budgets agreed upon by Bloomberg and the City Council.
City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, the chairperson of the Fire and Criminal Justice committees who opposed proposed FDNY cutbacks over the last several years, expressed “disappointment” of Bloomberg’s proposal in a statement issued last Thursday.
“Closing even a single fire company in New York City will lead to increased response times, more fire fatalities and millions of dollars in property damage,” she said.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio added that “the failure to restore funding for 20 fire companies in this year’s budget is a dangerous gamble that will put New Yorkers’ lives at risk.”
“We’ve looked at this: closing these companies would push entire neighborhoods over the national standard for acceptable response times,” de Blasio said in a statement. “Mayor Bloomberg needs to heed the voices of New Yorkers-who vehemently opposed these same cuts last year- and present a plan that protects the safety of the homes of all New Yorkers.”
Reportedly, official budget negotiations between the mayor and City Council are expected to begin in March.
Fire Department companies across Queens responded to over 99,000 fire and emergency incidents in 2011, according to a Jan. 31 letter by Deputy Assistant Chief John Sudnik sent to Community Board 5 and obtained by the Times Newsweekly.
Approximately 4,656 structural fires occurred in the borough in 2011, down 2.6 percent from the number tallied the previous year. Units also responded to over 45,000 life-threatening medical emergencies last year and were critical in saving 60 Queens residents “due to the timely response and delivery of pre-hospital care by FDNY Engine companies,” according to Sudnik.
“The average response time to all fires and emergencies for Queens was four minutes, 54 seconds,” Sudnik wrote. “This was four seconds faster than in 2010.”