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Firefighters protest proposed staffing changes in City of Tonawanda

City of Tonawanda firefighters are protesting proposed staffing changes for the department in next year’s budget that they say will limit their ability to do their jobs.

“It’s going to change the types of incidents that we’re able to respond to,” said Jim Barber, Tonawanda president of Uniformed Professional Firefighters Local 859. “Other certain non-emergency calls we’re just not going to be able to handle anymore that frankly the citizens of this city have come to expect.”

The retirements of two assistant chiefs and two firefighters are anticipated next year. Mayor Rick Davis has proposed eliminating the assistant chief positions, hiring two new firefighters and utilizing the captains who serve as training and code enforcement officers as part of a platoon, which they currently do not.

“It’s a net loss/gain of zero,” Davis told Barber, noting that the department would not fall below the minimum of five men on a shift.

Career and volunteer firefighters from various area departments picketed outside City Hall on Tuesday before the Common Council’s meeting, carrying signs protesting the plan.

“When you pick up that phone and you dial 911, you know what you’re getting in the City of Tonawanda, you expect it,” city volunteer firefighter Frank Corbett told the Council. “It’s not the maximum and it’s not the best we can do but it sure is a hell of a lot above the minimum.”

Salaries account for $2 million of the $2.2 million budgeted for the Fire Department in Davis’ proposed 2015 budget of $20.4 million, which was the subject of a hearing during the meeting Tuesday in Council Chambers. The budget includes a tax levy increase of 7.1 percent to $10.8 million, which is more than double the city’s allowable tax cap increase set by Albany.

The Council on Tuesday approved a law authorizing the city to override the tax cap, if necessary, when the Council adopts a budget next month – one of the few area municipalities to take that step.

If the city does override the tax cap, residents would lose out on a state property tax rebate next year. Under Davis’ proposed budget, the owner of an average home in the city would have faced a tax bill increase of about $100 if not for a citywide reassessment of properties conducted last year that would keep the average increase at $15.

Davis noted that 78 percent of the city’s expenses are related to personnel costs and offered to work with fire union officials to find other ways to trim expenses.

email: jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com