Leader Blues

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

TOP STORY >>Shortage of funds prevents hirings

Leader staff writer

Firefighters, concerned over their declining numbers, attended the monthly meeting of the fire and police committee of the Cabot City Council Thursday night. They, as well as a handful of city residents who also attended, said safety was the issue that concerned them and asked the mayor and committee what they are going to do about it.

The answer was that there is not a lot that can be done because the city is still having financial difficulties. Mayor Eddie Joe Williams said that between unpaid bills and cost overruns on the animal shelter and community center last year, the city owed $1 million that he hadn’t expected to have to pay this year. Just two weeks ago, he had to decide which bills he could pay and still make payroll, he said.

The department is down five firefighters since three resigned and two have been deployed. The mayor has said that because of budget concerns, he won’t replace the three who resigned and he is reluctant to replace the two who have been called to the war in Iraq because he would have to keep the new employees when the old ones return.

He said during the meeting that Fire Chief Phil Robinson should consider bringing back firefighters who are only paid when they are called out. Those “pay per call” firefighters were terminated last year when the chief thought he would add firefighters this year, Williams said before the meeting.

A handout from Robinson showed that of the 155 calls to the fire department in April, only one was a structure fire, while 116 were backup for MEMS, which contracts with the city to provide ambulance service. Two were vehicle fires, seven were grass fires, seven were motor-vehicle collisions, five were false alarms, six were canceled and 11 were for services such as checking fire alarms and sprinklers.

Some council members who gathered outside after the meeting questioned the necessity of the fire department providing backup for the ambulance service, especially since their runs are in large fire engines. The council members also cautiously and very informally raised the possibility of another one-cent sales tax that could be used for streets and to help fund the fire and police departments which now share the $3 million revenue from a one-cent sales tax.

The sales tax in Cabot is 9 percent for most purchases, 6 percent for the state, two percent for the city and one percent for the county. But the city also has a 1.5 percent hamburger tax, so the total sales tax on prepared food is 10.5 percent.

During the meeting, Scott Barker, president of the firefighters association, said he was inside a burning house last fall and was pulled to safety by the firefighters who were still outside. The current staffing allows only two firefighters on a truck, he said, adding that if two are inside a structure fire, there is no one on the outside to keep them safe.

“I don’t know the answer,” Barker said. I don’t handle the money. But I do know this: if we don’t do something, we’re going to get someone killed.” The council members who talked together after the meeting said fire engines from all three stations respond to fires so the scenario described by Barker is unlikely.

Williams said during the meeting that the city has been written up by state auditors for not having any money in reserve. He said there is no money now for street overlays or new equipment. Police Chief Jackie Davis is scavenging parts from old patrol cars to keep others running, he said. His goal is to cut costs enough to set aside at least $600,000 this year to keep 2008 from starting out like 2007, he said.