Firefighters want more input into budget cuts, say South Hills could ‘take the biggest hit'
Joe King, president of Firefighters Local Union #1, says firefighters should have a greater amount of input into proposed city budget spending cuts and the department's role in the future. That was the focus of his message as he spoke to the South Side Slopes Neighborhood Association on May 13.
King stressed the South Side Slopes is among the most affected neighborhoods targeted for service cuts by Mayor Tom Murphy.
“It's a really serious issue,” King said in a 75-minute speech/question and answer period at the SSSNA's new meeting place at St. Paul's Monastery. “We've offered serious concessions.”
Mayor Murphy has often noted the city will be faced with a $45-$60 million budget shortfall unless some major spending cuts are made. And the fire department is the biggest sitting duck, according to King, despite the department's overwhelming support in Murphy's re-election bid in 2001. While King doesn't dispute assertions the city is fiscal straits, he argues the chopping block shouldn't start with his department.
The longtime union chief charges that the mayor has not been sincere about a proposed merger with EMS personnel and firefighters. “There is no ‘new plan,'” said King, who supports a merger. “[Firefighters] make contributions to the system. There has been no compromise.”
He says that under Murphy's plan to close nine fire stations, including three in South Pittsburgh, “we will lose 300 firefighters.”
King said, “the South Hills would take the biggest hit.”
Fire stations #21 and #24 are among those that would be eliminated, he said. He asserts that if the plan is approved, hilltop fire stations would need to service some of downtown, and “first-responder” times would be hard to meet.
“It's primarily been our position that annexation would be to enrich, not disrupt the health and safety of the community,” he said. “[Firefighters] are blamed as a major problem.”
King said if fire station cuts are made, firefighters should be relocated to more centralized locations and into new facilities. “We have older structures in bad geographical locations,” he said. King did not address the cost or strategy of acquiring new land or building new fire stations, but did suggest alternative cuts could be found with equipment and buildings.
“We need a certain amount of personnel,” he continued. “We always seem to get it done.”
At a recent Overbrook Community Council meeting, city councilman Jim Motznik said he would not vote for any merger plans that increases first-responder times. King said in a previous labor dispute, firefighters “took that jurisdiction away from council,” so it remains unclear as to what power city council really has in attempting to block Murphy's plans.
If the city is forced to file bankruptcy, the mayor could rewrite union contracts, King continued. “We are preparing for drastic measures.”
As a way of obtaining more funding, King supports the proposed occupational payroll tax, but believes it should be incremental, so lower-wage workers could pay a fraction of the levy, compared to better compensated professionals. However, he is not an advocate for casinos. “They generate poverty,” he commented.
Captain Jack Marks, who has served as a city firefighter for 31 years, agreed with King. Marks said it isn't possible for one engine company to adequately service South Side Slopes and neighboring communities. “They are really, really stretching services,” he said. “It's stretched so thin that I can't believe that they'd close three stations in the South Hills.”
Judy Hackel, president of the Allentown Civic Association, was in attendance and asked if a workable plan could be devised between the firefighters, EMS personnel and the mayor. King said firefighters should “craft the plan” that is ultimately used.
King urged residents to “be patient.” He predicts that the firefighter's plan will not meet Murphy's “economic criteria” and will be shot down. “There's arbitration in 2005.”
After King spoke, SSSNA president Bev Bagosi noted the group is closer to becoming a 501-c3. She also said Sunday, Oct. 5 has been designated as the date for this year's Step Trek. In addition, Duquesne Light has stepped forward as the “lead sponsor” of this year's event. To date, some $2,250 has been raised for the Step Trek.