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    Thumbs up Firefighters escape ax

    Firefighters escape ax in new budget

    By DAVE GERSHMAN

    Staff writer


    SALEM - City councilors, saying Salem can't afford to skimp on its Fire Department, passed a $90.6 million city budget last night that includes enough money to avoid any job losses among firefighters.

    "We have a level of safety in this city that we have to maintain," Ward 6 Councilor Mike Bencal said as two dozen firefighters sat watching in City Hall.

    Councilors used the words "crazy" and "unacceptable" to describe the mayor's unsuccessful attempt to cut the jobs of 14 firefighters, which provoked a lawsuit from the firefighters' union.

    But other city services will take a hit. The Police Department will lose 10 officers through attrition, and councilors warned response times to nonemergency calls will get longer. The School Department will lose 26 teaching positions, and perhaps more. Some playgrounds won't have instructors this summer, and other services such as sidewalk repairs will be cut back.

    To fund the budget, the city will raise property taxes and use $1.6 million in reserve funds. The most recent estimate has the average single-family homeowner's tax bill going up $450 to $500 next year. Councilors worried about the cost. The budget is $1.3 million more than last year, or a hike of 1.4 percent. But Salem will receive several million dollars less in aid from the state, and receive $1.9 million less in tax revenues from the power plant.

    Councilors expressed frustration that they could not find ways to cut spending.

    "There really was no collective, open communication with the administration," said Councilor-at-large Laura DeToma, chairwoman of the Administration and Finance Committee. "We just couldn't randomly reduce department budgets without understanding what the impact would be."

    Councilors had asked several times for Mayor Stanley Usovicz to meet to address his budget priorities. He did not address the council, and did not attend last night's meeting, either.

    Usovicz has said his attorney told him he should not attend City Council budget meetings and should send his finance director instead.

    The mayor had defused some of the controversy over his budget, which initially called for all departments to take a 10 percent cut in spending. The one exception was the schools, which were given the same amount of money as last year. After Usovicz learned he would lose more in local aid than he had anticipated, he moved to cut $900,000 from the School Department.

    Ward 7 Councilor Joe O'Keefe proposed cutting more from the schools -- a total of $1 million to $1.2 million. He said the schools can afford to hire fewer secretaries and custodians. O'Keefe said the money should be spent on public safety, but his motion was defeated.

    "I'm telling you, if you take 3 percent out of the schools' budget, the people who suffer are children," Ward 2 Councilor Regina Flynn said. "... I think to take it out on children is just awful."

    The big budget winner was the Fire Department, which went to court to prevent the mayor from cutting its ranks to 70 firefighters. The city has 84 firefighters today. City councilors said they didn't blame the firefighters for taking action.

    "They had no choice to protect our lives, to protect their lives, and to protect the status of the department," Councilor-at-large Kevin Harvey said.

    A judge ruled that the mayor had to submit a budget that fully funds the firefighters' contract, which calls for 95 firefighters. City councilors, everybody agreed, were free to pare that number.

    Bencal proposed cutting enough to leave the Fire Department with 88 or 85 firefighters. He said four firefighters are due to retire this year, and he believed there was enough wiggle room in the judge's decision to allow the mayor to hold up hiring replacements. In the end, his proposals were defeated, and city councilors gave the Fire Department enough money to maintain its current staffing of 84 firefighters.

    "If we say 'Yes' to everyone who walks in this room, we're saying 'No' to fiscal responsibility," Ward 5 Councilor Kim Driscoll said.

    In a separate action, Bencal got the votes to send a resolution to the mayor, calling on him to agree to hire replacements. Councilor Harvey also rounded up votes to send the mayor a resolution to commit $150,000 from a special account to fix one of the city's two aerial ladder trucks, which has been broken. Councilors said the recent fire at the Lincoln Hotel shows the need for a second ladder truck.

    "It doesn't make any sense to allow that truck to lie fallow," he said.

    After the vote, John O'Leary, president of the Salem firefighters' union, said he was pleased. He noted, however, that even with today's staffing levels, the Fire Department doesn't have enough manpower. In recent months, it has had to put one truck out of service two-thirds of the time. A second truck is out-of-service occasionally.

    "We're not losing any people," he said. "So it's a victory at that point."

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    I'm glad to see it...

    now Salem can send us in Beverly a mutual aid truck or two since one of ours will be out of service due to the budget

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