GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 26, 2013

Fire station spending in council sights

By Richard Gaines
Staff writer

---- — Councilor Bruce Tobey said Monday he will argue at City Council tonight that Mayor Carolyn Kirk should dip into the city’s free cash reserves of nearly $5 million to reopen on a full-time basis the city’s Bay View and Magnolia fire stations.

Bay View is now open 10 to 12 days out of every two weeks, while Magnolia is closed pending repairs, Chief Eric Smith has said.

Responding to questions by Tobey at a council meeting earlier this month, Smith said it would cost approximately $600,000 to restore full service to the branches for the duration of fiscal 2013, which ends June 30, and $2 million for a full fiscal year, an amount that does not include the cost of a fire truck for the Magnolia Station.

“I respect need to build solid financial reserves, and we have done that,” Tobey said Monday in an email to the Times. “But this year’s free cash surplus ($4.8 million) represents an embarrassment of riches. We built it on the back of closed neighborhood fire stations.

“It is time to repay the neighborhoods by reopening their fire stations,” he continued. “The council should not settle for a recommendation that we spend relative pennies on the fire department while those stations remain closed.”

Kirk shot back Monday that “public safety is being politicized in a most unfortunate manner.”

“The reserve (financial) position of the city is very important, and free cash is an unreliable source of operating revenue,” Kirk said. “We need to look no further than this winter and the expenses of cleaning up from Blizzard Nemo and subsequent storms vs. the total lack of snow last winter, which caused our free cash to spike.

“Services will be brought back only in a sustainable manner,” Kirk said. “We are on our way to achieving this goal as we see Bay View station being reliably opened about 80 of the time. We expect this trend to continue and, in fact, improve. And as we perform repairs on the Magnolia station, we will see that station open more and more as well.”

The occasion for Tobey’s effort is the relatively minor proposed spending of $132,000 from the free cash reserves for the hiring and training of one additional firefighter this year. On his motion, the council put off acting on this request when earlier this month it approved the distribution of about $1.5 million for 20 different purposes in a comprehensive proposal for the use and squirreling of the largest free cash windfall in Gloucester’s modern history, or since the adoption of the current charter in the mid-1970s.

In December, the council, at the mayor’s request, used $246,000 in free cash for firefighters’ overtime that is allowing Bay View to remain open more consistently than in the past. Another proposal to establish a $200,000 “station opening stabilization fund” was pulled back after receiving a negative reception by the council, Kirk said.

“Councilor Tobey has a short memory,” the mayor said in a telephone interview.

At the Feb. 12 council meeting, Chief Smith said that Bay View will be open less after the current “off season for vacations” ends and staffing for shifts is diminished as the number of firefighter vacations increases.

At the same meeting, Tobey said $1.6 million sits in “a pot” (the stabilization fund) so that, in November, the city can say it has that amount of free cash. Kirk has announced her bid for a fourth term, with city elections due in November. Fiscal stability and responsibility have been the watchwords of her three previous campaigns.

Council President Jackie Hardy’s analysis of the question of using reserves to open the Bay View Station was similar to Tobey’s.

“As ward councillor to Ward 4, I have always believed that the opening of the Bay View fire station needs to have more attention (in the form of funding) paid to it,” Hardy said in an email.”The administration proposes spending roughly $132,000 in free cash for the Fire Department; that is a drop in the public safety bucket.

“At the last City Council meeting there were (some) Fire Department budgetary transfers that were put over to (tonight’s) City Council meeting in hopes that the administration would speak to the council about its intentions on getting serious about keeping Bay View open,” she added. “If the administration was serious about public safety, they would be spending more on the Fire Department response times.”

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.