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Cost of fire department a budget issue

Deputy Fire Chief Paul Melfi warned the Common Council on Tuesday against taking extreme cost-saving measures that would lead to the privatization of the Fire Department.

Speaking during a public hearing on a proposal to increase water and sewer fees by $3 per 1,000 cubic feet, Melfi said suggestions made in recent weeks to trim the department's $2.6 million budget request for 2006-07 are not based on research or input from knowledgeable employees.

Mayor David J. Carucci has held private talks with leaders of the police, fire and civil service unions and has asked them to return to him with a plan to save money in his $14.5 million budget proposal as he begins to fine-tune the plan for consideration by the Council.

Melfi predicted that privatizing firefighting and ambulance services would increase fees and eventually make the city hostage to a for-profit concern, forcing the city to return to a public Fire Department.

"You would be surprised what it costs to get that successful Fire Department back up and running," Melfi said. "Giving away money doesn't make sense."

A cardiologist urged caution in cutting the Fire Department budget, pointing out that lives have been saved by 15 years' work to raise the standards for emergency treatment.

"If you do it right it costs a lot of money," said Dr. Henry D. Storch.

An audience of about 50, mostly city employees and a handful of residents, turned out for the hearing and to attend a committee meeting and a Council session that followed.

Resident Alfred V. Eade described Fire Department wages and benefits as "intolerable" and reminded lawmakers that they are responsible for authorizing contracts, while unions cannot be blamed if they press for more money.

Resident Sandra Tarr pointed out that police personnel have similar wages and benefits that should be under scrutiny for cost-cutting.

Several commented on pending legislation for the first of two planned increases in water and sewer rates, asking why a second hike of $10 in each of the water and sewer funds would take effect later this year if the mayor's budget is adopted in April.

Carucci said he plans to bring the water- and sewer-rate legislation to the Council for a vote March 28.

In committee action, aldermen forwarded two pieces of legislation to the Council for action later this month that could increase fees for reconnecting water service to $100 and to shut off service if homeowners refuse to allow meters to be read.

Also approved in committee was a proposal by the mayor to amend the City Charter to increase the term length for aldermen, which currently is two years.

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