Cutbacks steam fire union


07/02/03
By BILL KOCH Daily Commercial Staff Writer
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LEESBURG

A decision to cut budget re-quests from the police department and the fire department has irked some leaders of the Leesburg Professional Firefighters Union.

Union leaders say the city’s trimming of $240,000 from their budget request may cause their insurance rates to go up and fire coverage in the city to decline.

However, City Manager Ron Stock said the fire department will get the largest increase — more than 15 percent — of any other department in the city under his proposed budget. The city’s overall spending package, he added, is increasing by less than 1 percent.

Stock will present his figures to the city commission at a July 11 workshop.

The fire department’s budget request included adding three new firefighters and one new training officer. Stock’s budget proposal for the 39-member fire department has no provisions for hiring new staff.

Union spokesman Allen Shaffer said the department needs to hire new staff members to cover an area the city annexed last year, which encompasses the Lake Square Mall and the Leesburg Regional Airport.

“We have already taken a truck out of service,” Shaffer said. “We’re actually behind the ball.”

Shaffer said they were notified last month that the city’s $900,000 budget shortfall would come from the fire department and the police department.

Police officials said their department’s ability to cover the city adequately won’t be impacted by the city’s budget shortfalls.

The police department had asked for $6.4 million, which would have included funding to hire three new officers. That amount was pared to $6.1 million and eliminates the new positions.

“We decided we’re not going to look at (any) new people,” said police spokesman Capt. Steve Rockefeller.

The police department got approval last year to hire eight new officers. It has hired four so far.

“We’re still going to fill those positions,” Rockefeller said.

He added that police officials have combed through the department’s budget and were able to chop $380,000. Even with the department cuts, Rockefeller said the police department is not hurting — at least for the time being.

“We’ve annexed a lot of areas and we’ve asked for increases,” Rockefeller said. “But there’s been no drastic complaints. We are covering it.”

He said the department is concerned about the influx of visitors during the fall and winter holidays, but added that the eight new officers should be hired and trained by that time.

Shaffer said Stock’s paring of their budget request will force the fire department to abandon its use of the fire-tower truck.

“We’ll have to drop it out of service,” he said.

Insurance regulators gave the Leesburg Fire Department a favorable rating for its proposed use of the special truck. The truck has a ladder that can reach upper levels of structures.

Shaffer said fire engines need to have at least two firefighters; the tower truck needs at least three. At normal staffing levels, the fire department won’t have enough on-duty firefighters to operate both, Shaffer said.

“We’re back to not being able to fill our end of the bargain,” said firefighter and union member Joe Mera.

Stock said the fire department will still be able to use the tower truck, but not all the time. Staffing levels will allow the fire department to use the truck two-thirds of the time, he said.

He also said the fire department hasn’t used the ladder truck in the last two years anyway while it was undergoing repairs.

The fire department had asked for $3.4 million. If the city commission approves Stock’s proposal, the department will get $3.1 million. The fire department received $2.7 million last year. The city later amended the department’s budget to $2.9 million.

“That’s still the greatest increase in the city of Leesburg,” Stock said.

He said those figures don’t include the $2 million the fire department is getting to buy new trucks and other equipment.

Shaffer said he objects to the city commission’s interest in wanting to spend $1.7 million to buy the Silver Lake Country Club, saying the money could be better spent on vital services.

Stock countered by saying that the city has obligations to all of its residents.

“The city is a balancing of interests,” he said. “Everybody needs to get something and, as a result, we have to do a little in recreation, in the police department, in the fire department and in libraries. We have to meet a combination of needs for our city.”

More than half of the city’s budget goes to the police department and the fire department.