Fire Companies on the Chopping Block, Again

Queens Chronicle - February 10, 2012

by Anna Gustafson, Senior Editor

Sound the fire alarms -- again.

As he has since taking office, Mayor Bloomberg is threatening to throw a number of fire companies into the furnace, and Queens legislators are gearing up for what has become an annual budget battle that typically results in no, or few, units being disbanded.

Bloomberg released his preliminary budget for the 2013 fiscal year last Thursday, which includes closing 20 fire companies -- a proposal that he has made for three years running. In 2009, he recommended closing 16 sites, and the Bloomberg administration has shuttered seven companies between 2003 and 2009.

"On the heels of the 10 busiest years in the history of the FDNY, both the mayor and City Council have to know that closing fire houses will compromise the public and firefighter safety," said Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy. "We strongly recommend they don't do it."

The city did not say which companies are being targeted this time around, though some speculated that the same 20 as last year may once again be fingered for closure, including four in Queens -- Engine 294 at 101-20 Jamaica Ave. in Woodhaven, Engine 306 at 40-18 214 Place in Bayside, Ladder 128 at 33-51 Greenpoint Ave. in Long Island City and Engine 328 at 16-19 Central Ave. in Far Rockaway.

"You can expect that if your community has been targeted for closure in the past, you'll probably be targeted by City Hall again," said Tom Butler, a spokesman for the Uniformed Firefighters Association.

The 20 companies that had been slated for closure last year were saved in the final budget, as they were in previous years, but legislators said they're still prepared to have to fight the mayor to keep the spots open once again.

"Closing even a single fire company in New York City will lead to increased response times, more fire fatalities and millions of dollars in property damage," Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) said in a prepared statement.

Bloomberg's preliminary $68.7 billion budget -- up from the current $67.4 billion budget -- would not increase taxes and proposes no layoffs of teachers or "uniformed workers." Last year, the mayor's plan to ax about 4,000 teachers was a highly controversial proposal that resulted in countless rallies across the city. Ultimately, the positions were retained.

"Cities across the country have struggled to keep their heads above water --laying off teachers, police officers or firefighters, with a few even having to declare bankruptcy," Bloomberg said a press conference at City Hall last week. "We've avoided those painful steps, because we spent years planning ahead, made government more efficient and saved for a rainy day. The budget we are presenting today is a balanced budget with no tax increases, no layoffs of teachers or uniformed workers and no walking away from our long-term investments."

While lawmakers have said this year's proposal is less controversial than in years past, concerns remain, particularly with the fire companies and Bloomberg's plan to cut about $26.7 million from the Queens library system, chop 6 percent of all community boards' budgets, which have not increased in about a decade, and carve about $1.6 million from borough presidents' discretionary funding. The decrease in discretionary monies could result in the closure of six senior centers and four adult day care centers in Queens, according to Borough President Helen Marshall.

"This budget once again reduces already strained services," Marshall said at a budget hearing at Queens Borough Hall on Monday.

Tom Galante, president and CEO of the Queens Library, said the $26.7 million cut "is the largest budget challenge we've ever faced," and could leave some sites open just two or three days a week.

"If passed, we'd have 42 percent less funding than we had in 2008," Galante said at the same hearing.

Community board district managers at the budget hearing stressed that a 6 percent cut to their budgets would translate into possible layoffs.

"If these cuts were to go through, it would come to more than $730,000 in cuts to all the community boards in the city," CB 7 District Manager Marilyn Bitterman said. "It could result in losing a part-time staff person."

CB 9 District Manager Mary Ann Carey noted that the mayor has proposed slashing funding to community boards for years.

"You've saved us every year for the past eight years, and we ask you to save us again," Carey said to Marshall.

Plans to cut funding to Beacon programs, which are school-based community centers that offer services like tutoring and sports to children and adults, have also drawn ire from officials throughout Queens. The city could shutter seven Beacon sites by July 1, leaving Queens parents petrified that their center could vanish.

As with the fire companies, the city has not said which sites could be cut.

Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) said parents in his district are especially concerned that a Beacon program at IS 141 at 37-11 21 Ave. could be shuttered.

The site at IS 141 offers free educational and recreational activities for middle school students, including help with homework and tutoring, along with physical activities and creative programs ranging from art to music.

"This program has not been cut, but even the mere threat of it is unacceptable," Vallone said. "Our students and working parents would suffer, and we will make every effort to ensure that this program stays open."

CB 6 District Manager Frank Gulluscio said at Monday's budget hearing that he too is concerned about cuts to Beacon programs and noted that the site at JHS 190 in Forest Hills serves more than 1,500 people annually.

Bloomberg said one of the most serious budget issue facing the city is the cost of the pension program, which has increased by about 500 percent since 2002, rising from $1.3 billion to an estimated $8 billion for 2013.

He supports lowering pensions for future hires.

"Right now our pension system is fairly described as a ticking time bomb," Bloomberg said. " ... We have an obligation to pay for those with us now, but we just can't afford to grant new people those size benefits.