Early this month, the Linton Fire Department learned the city may lose a firefighter position due to the current civil city budget shortfall. Eric Carpenter, President of the local International Association of Firefighters has a meeting on October 13th with the president of the Professional Fire Fighters Union of Indiana to discuss ways the department could resolve this situation and prevent it from being a problem in the future.
“When we approached him about it he felt for us and everything, but he said this isn’t something that’s new. There are departments all over the state that are going through this,” said Carpenter.
Fire Chief Brad Sparks noted that the fire department is now in the same situation as the Linton Police Department, but with much less notice.
“When I approached [Mayor] John [Wilkes] about that, his answer was that first he didn’t think the fire department was going to be under fire but as it came closer to the deadline unfortunately we kind of got thrown under the bus, too,” Carpenter explained.
He stressed that communications between firefighters and City Hall are open, and that Wilkes has told him he’s more than willing to keep the firefighter position if they can find a way to cut enough money from their budget.
Firefighter Ross Gentry, who did an internship with the department while attending high school and then starting working there full-time in April of 2012, has the least amount of seniority and would be the firefighter to lose his job. Carpenter said if this happens, the mayor told him it would probably go into effect in mid-to-late November. He pointed out that this would affect the department badly at this point in time.
“We only have 9 guys to begin with, and right now we’ve got two guys off for workman’s comp … If we lose Ross on the layoff then that brings us down to six guys,” Carpenter explained.
He also noted that according to safety regulations you should have four firefighters to run a fire engine and that in cases where only two people were scheduled for a shift if one of them could not be at work the city would need to pay overtime. This is a way the fire department’s position differs from that of the police department, because firefighters get paid overtime while police officers receive compensation time instead. Sparks said additional overtime generated by the reduced manpower could ultimately cost more than keeping the extra man.
Carpenter added that he also expects this to create more problems, although they don’t have estimates on the dollar amounts that could be involved.
An additional way in which the fire department’s situation is different from that of the police department is that while Sparks said the fire department has considered using a grant that would pay for a firefighter in a way similar to the grant the police department has for its 11th officer, the fire department chose not to apply for that type of grant. Sparks explained that they realized the grant would lock them into keeping that employee for a set amount of time even if layoffs became necessary, and that it would not have been the best choice for either the fire department or the City of Linton.
Carpenter remarked on the fact that his union has not yet had a chance to work on this problem with representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police, who have been in budget cut discussions with the mayor since late August.
“Unfortunately, we found out so late it’s made it difficult, to put it mildly. Ideally, that would have been perfect for the two of us to get together,” he explained.
Sparks noted the fire department provides fire protection for the entire Stockton Township and also runs a full-time ambulance service for the area. He also pointed out that Linton has a lot of people in assisted living situations, and that it is important they have access to quick responses during emergencies.
“The only thing we have to survive off in this area is assisted living,” Sparks stated. “What else is there here? There’s nothing in this community but assisted living, and how are we going to protect assisted living by cutting manpower? Our hospital has just expanded for that reason, and now we’re going to cut our police, fire, and EMS. It makes no sense to me, but there again our tax payers voted on it.”
He added that while some community members consider switching to a volunteer fire department to be a viable cost-cutting option, that would come with its own problems.
“They can go to a volunteer fire department at any time but they’re going to have to come up with extra people, because we’ve got nine guys doing the job. They are going to need two to three times that many people … and every one of those people is going to have another job. Are they going to be available to make the approximately 1,000 runs we make a year? Will the service be the same for our citizens?” Sparks asked.
Carpenter noted that response time is generally the biggest concern with volunteer fire departments.
“With us being here on-station the response time is tremendously better than a volunteer department. Even an active volunteer department that’s doing all they can do, they’ve got to cover from home or work or wherever,” he explained.
Sparks said the Stockton Township area response time is generally three to five minutes, and that while that may seem like an eternity to the person who dialed 911 it is a short time to get a fire truck or ambulance on-scene.
He went on to note that local fire departments assist each other with equipment and manpower, so cuts to the Linton department could impact response times in other parts of the county.
Sparks explained that department activities such as Fire Safety Month tours and giveaways for kids, sponsorship of sports teams, scholarships, and buying and hanging American and Linton Miner Flags are not funded out of their budget but are instead taken care of through donations and fundraising efforts.
He said even the previous fire department administration was watching money carefully after voters chose to cap property taxes in 2008.
“We were told in 2008 to tighten our belts and start preparing for the worst—be ready, be ready, be ready,” Sparks recalled. “And that’s exactly what the fire department has done. There have been no big purchases made by the City of Linton on the fire department side since then. Everything here has been done by donations, or grants, or fundraising activities we’ve done on our own.”
Sparks said they have already cut about $30,000 in basic things such as maintenance costs for their equipment from their budget, and that while they hope to find additional cost-saving measures to enable them to keep the firefighter position the budget is already bare-bones. He added that in the long term the city will simply have to generate more tax revenue.
“The ultimate answer is a local income tax that the commissioners could put on. But the way I understand it now is the commissioners we have are not for adding any taxes. As a taxpayer I understand that, but also as a taxpayer when I call 911 I want someone to respond. When I go to drive home I like to drive on blacktopped roads. I like to know things are working in our community,” Sparks stated.
Carpenter asked community members to attend the next city council meeting at 6 p.m. on October 14th at the City Hall.
“We’re basically trying to rally support not only for us but for public safety in general,” Carpenter explained. “Anyone out there who catches word of this, we encourage them to call their council members, call the mayor’s office, and most definitely attend on the 14th to show support if they’re able. If anyone has any questions we can answer we’re willing to talk to people or meet with groups or do whatever we can to help the situation.”
Sparks added that he believes money can be raised to help offset the budget shortfall, but that citizens will need to be willing to pitch in.
“Right now it’s just up in the air and we’ll see what we can come up with at crunch time,” he remarked. “I think without the voter support we’re spinning our wheels, but with the support of voters showing that they’re willing to help– that’s where we’re going to succeed.”