Budget woes force fire cutbacks in Gary

August 18, 2008 4:00:42 PM PDT
A budget crisis has apparently hit the city of Gary, so much so that Mayor Rudy Clay told some firefighters to go home from work. The city claims it doesn't have the money to pay them, and that means fewer firefighters are able to respond to emergencies.

On Monday morning, Gary's firefighters' union said the firehouses in Gary were staffed at below 50 percent, meaning that, of the 71 firefighters that should be on duty now, only 33 are staffing firehouses.

The city countered by saying all its firehouses are operating at capacity, have been staffed and are ready to go. They say these cutbacks are necessary simply because the budget doesn't allow enough money to pay these firefighters. They're saying that without these budget cuts, the city will have to literally shut down come October 1.

The city also blamed its budget woes on the past administration. They also say a shortfall in tax revenue is another reason they simply don't have the money. What they want firefighters and city employees to do is work a 32-hour week. City firefighters in Gary say the move will leave them with only three firefighters on a fire truck, as opposed to four. They say that is in direct violation of a court order and puts firefighters and city residents at risk.

"It's hard with four people," said Capt. Kent Whitt, Gary firefighter. "So, it's even more strenuous with having three guys. You have an officer, technically. you should have an officer, an engineer and two firefighters. We only have an officer, an engineer and a firefighter. You're handicapping us."

"We're $12 million short. When you're $12 million short in a city like Gary, Indiana, then you got to have some strategies to keep services going to the community," said Clay. "And so, to keep services going to the community and keep everybody working, this is the plan that we've come up with."

Firefighters, their friends and their families have begun demonstrations at various firehouses, saying that they plan to go to court to discount what Clay is saying and the executive order he has made.

In the meantime, the mayor says that even if they get past this budget woe, they have more budget trouble ahead. Next year, that shortfall will roughly be $11 million behind.

City officials say the city of Gary is safe, despite what the firefighters' union may believe.

The fire engine at one station is unmanned. Even with the cutbacks, Fire Station Number 3 is still open, kind of. Even though it is open, firefighters there say they can't fight any fires with the engine they have.

"The station's open, but the engine company is 10/7? out of service," said Acting Battalion Chief Larry Whiting, Gary Fire Department.

According to the union, so are at least four other engine companies after a dozen or so firefighters and paramedics were told to go home without pay.

"Basically I have to show back up my next work day and see if I'm going to be allowed to work. They said they are going to have at least 10 guys a day they are going to send home," said Eric Yarbough, Gary firefighter.

"There are people who are single parents on this job with multiple children, and I have no idea how they are going to manage. Just with my 20 percent (cut), and I am a dual income household, it is going to hurt," said firefighter Tiffany Mireles.

"In a city like ours, public service is the last thing you need to cut. We are already riding 40 men short. Our equipment is not up to par," said Lt. Raynard Robinson, Firefighters Union Local 359.

"We are taking steps to get a temporary restraining order against the city to stop the shift changes. The city has asked for a change of venue, so right now we are in a holding pattern," said Sgt. Latonya Shields-Marsh, Gary Fraternal Order of Police.

The mayor says he has no choice but to make the cuts to keep city running. He blames the shortfall in revenue on the previous administration.

"He spent $1.1 billion over an 11-year period. That is about $110 million a year. There is a $70 million debt, made an error, and we had to cut with another $11 million," clay said.

Some Gary residents wonder what is next for them and the safety of their city.

One of my main concerns is our children. In a neighborhood like this, anything might happen," said Hosea Wilson.

Previous mayor Scott King responded to Clay's claim, saying he has been out of office for two years and that Clay should have known the city was having budget problems.

"I empathize with what he is going through. It is a difficult job. But I think he should focus on what he is doing or not doing, and frankly, stop blaming everybody else," King said.


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