By Karen Caffarini
Jun 18, 2020 at 9:01 AM
Budget deficits and an exhausted overtime budget is resulting in the closure of two Hobart fire stations at times, a move that some firemen, their wives and residents called unsafe for the firefighters and the residents. Enrique Lopez, president of Hobart Professional Firefighters Association Local 1641, told the City Council Wednesday that he has safety concerns for the public and himself with the closure of fire stations 1 and 3. “I took an oath to die for the city. My family did not take that oath,” Lopez said.
He said there could be large response times with only stations 2 and 4 open. “I understand budget constraints, but the city needs to understand that public safety should be the last to be cut,” Lopez said. He said in talking to the Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch recently, he learned that the city may not see revenue levels equal to 2019 until 2024. “With this in mind, I cannot wait until the fourth quarter to start making reductions in spending,” he said in the memo to department heads.
Snedecor said the fire department has spent $360,000 in overtime already this year, far exceeding its overtime budget of $45,000.
“We don’t have $800,000 to $1 million for overtime (to cover the remainder of the year),” Snedecor said. Mayor Brian Snedecor said he sent a letter to all department heads informing them that unless they received prior approval, there would be no overtime other than FLSA to be paid by payroll, no expenditures over $500 from the general fund and no backfilling of any vacancies or hiring of new employees. Snedecor cited budget deficits caused by COVID-19, tax appeals and a negative cash balance at the beginning of the year, in addition to expected property tax shortfalls this year. He said the last three months have had a significant impact on the city, causing as much as 20% in additional cuts this year and possibly 30% in additional reductions in 2021. He pointed out that no one was being laid off. He also stressed that 11 firefighters was a minimum and that there are six firefighters now on leave for various reasons. Once they return, it could result in a third station opening and up to 14 firefighters per 24-hour shift. “Staffing numbers will fluctuate day to day,” Snedecor said.
Resident Keith Smith said he disagreed with the decision to close two fire stations. “I disagree with closing two major stations with access to our highways and major businesses on our most profitable corridor, U.S. 30,” Smith said. “Every one of your firefighters is here ready to stand with this city.”
One person, who identified herself as a firefighter’s wife, asked how the city could justify promoting five police officers with pay raises, yet not have an adequate staff on the fire department. One of the officers promoted was Snedecor’s son, Ryan Snedecor.
Snedecor said the police chief stayed within his budget. The mayor also said the police department has spent only $24,617.91 in overtime so far this year compared to the fire department’s $361,642.02.
Others questioned why the city would jeopardize the federal SAFER grant the department received, which helps pay some firefighters’ salaries, by not maintaining a certain staffing level as required. Snedecor said the city can’t afford to hire any more firefighters. He said he didn’t believe the city would lose the grant. “I think they’ll understand our constraints, with COVID-19,” he said.
Karen Caffarini is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.