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Safety concerns

Budgeting is about planning and choices and, these days, compromise.

But no one wants to compromise on public safety.

Over the last few years, both the police and fire departments have felt the effects of state property tax caps; staffing in both departments has been too low.

This summer, just before officials dived into the difficult process of determining expenditures for 2014, the city used the legislature’s property-tax-revenue escape hatch and passed a Local Option Income Tax aimed specifically at preserving the resources of the police and fire departments.

The tax will raise $4.7 million next year, allowing Fort Wayne to hire and train new police officers and firefighters.

Without this fiscal booster shot, the departments would almost certainly have faced further cuts in positions with repercussions in service and safety. Added taxes are no fun for officials or for all of us who feel the bite in our paychecks. But at least for now, public safety is no longer an issue.

Or is it?

In a widely publicized letter last week, Jeremy Bush, president of Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Local 124, asserts that far from being enhanced, firefighter staffing is in effect being further cut.

Bush contends that the 15 new firefighters would be offset by the budget’s $1.2 million cut in next year’s overtime and further attrition in the ranks. As a result, he said, fewer firefighters actually would be on duty each day than at present.

“We’re at the lowest staffing level in 10 years,” Bush said Friday. In 2004, he said, there were 350 firefighters, and 101 on duty each shift. That number has dropped to 96, which Bush believes still is adequate to protect the city.

But under the new budget, the per-shift number will drop to 91, Bush said, explaining that his union’s concern is based on safe-staffing statistics compiled by the National Firefighter Protection Association and other national organizations. The lower number, he said, will lengthen response times and could become a problem when multiple incidents are occurring at once.

Bush questions where the LOIT money is really going, given that the fire department’s budget – after adjusting for hydrant-maintenance funds that have been transferred to City Utilities – is essentially flat for the coming year.

“It’s smoke and mirrors,” Bush said. “It comes down to firefighters’ and citizens’ safety.”

John Perlich, spokesman for the mayor’s office, Monday confirmed that the staffing level will drop under the new budget, but to 92 firefighters per shift, not 91. Taking planned retirements into account, he wrote, the number of firefighters overall is expected to return to about 350.

“This staffing level was reached after careful consideration of the fire department’s obligations and without compromise to the safety of our citizens,” Perlich wrote in an email Monday.

With the addition of 15 new firefighters, “obviously overtime is going to go down,” City Controller Pat Roller said Thursday. She noted that though $1.2 million in overtime has been cut, $700,000 has been left in. Perlich said that number would allow the city to keep staffing levels the same while recruits are at the training academy, another concern critics had raised.

In fact, Perlich wrote, the fire department’s budget for 2014 will actually be up by more than $326,000, to $36,743,812.

Both Roller and Perlich stressed that they are not spending LOIT funds on anything other than public safety. By law, Roller said, “I wouldn’t be allowed to do that.”

“The LOIT isn’t just for the fire department, it’s for all public safety (that includes Police),” Perlich wrote. “The LOIT can only be used for public safety purposes as required by law. We are doing exactly that.”

Firefighters will be allowed to speak at the council’s final budget meeting tonight – after the budget is passed.

Fire department budgets, staffing comparisons and LOIT revenue allotment are statistical thickets subject to different interpretations. It would seem far too late for the council to do the kind of analysis that would confirm the firefighters union’s concerns or put them to rest.

It is something for the city and the council to watch closely, though. That LOIT was passed with a minimum of grumbling showed that it was perceived as addressing a compelling need. If the new staffing creates safety concerns next year, and if there’s evidence that LOIT funds could be more effectively allocated within the public-safety realm, officials should be ready to readjust.

In the long run, the council must do more than simply accept the city’s or the fire union’s interpretations of the community’s safety needs.