When City Council voted to increase local income taxes by 0.35 percent in June, Mayor Tom Henry's administration promised the extra cash would allow the city to hire 15 additional firefighters.
But according to full-page ads the firefighters' union will place in both daily Fort Wayne newspapers over the next several days, the city's proposed 2014 budget actually threatens firefighters' safety and effectiveness by dramatically reducing overtime spending – possibly affecting the number of people available.
The ads, which Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Local 124 President Jeremy Bush will first appear in Thursday's News-Sentinel, will cost the union about $7,000. But that expense, he said, could be dwarfed by far more serious costs.
The ad contains a letter from Bush in which he states that passage of the proposed budget “not only compromises firefighter safety, but more importantly results in the reduction of (public) services and . . . safety.”
The problem, he said, is that while the tax increase will generate $4.7 million toward police and fire budgets, the Fire Department's overtime budget could be cut from $1.9 million to $685,000 next year. What's more, Bush added, it would cost the city just $2.7 million to add the promised 15 firefighters and 20 police officers.
“Where is the remaining $2 million going?” he asked.
Bush hopes the ads will persuade members of Council to reject Henry's proposed budget. The department has about 343 members now, and Bush considers full staffing to be about 370 firefighters. He said he realizes it would be unrealistic to demand the $3 million needed to achieve full staffing, but with four or five firefighters retiring every year, he added, “safety will be compromised while (the public pays) higher taxes under the illusion public safety is being strengthened.”
But in a statement signed by Controller Pat Roller and Fire Chief Amy Biggs, the city defended its budget.
“We want to assure the public that the city is committed to providing excellent public safety services. We know that investing in public safety is critical in our efforts to being a city that values quality of life, strong neighborhoods, and being a vibrant place for business and job growth,” they wrote.
“Earlier this year, the administration, Council and business and neighborhood leaders supported a financial plan in order to ensure that the safety of citizens and businesses were not compromised. . . . The plan also means the city will continue to provide essential fire services. There will not be any layoffs of public safety workers, and no fire stations will be closed. Firefighters Local 124 opposed the Local Option Income Tax (LOIT), which would have compromised
the safety of firefighters, the community, and the delivery of services.”
City Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd., who voted against the tax increase, nevertheless said he did not believe the administration had misrepresented its plans for the money. But State Rep. Bob Morris, a Republican from Fort Wayne who said he sponsored the 2010 bill authorizing the use of local option income taxes for public safety, said some cities have used "maneuvers" to use some of the money for purposes other than public safety -- a loophole Morris said he'll try to close during the 2014 session.
City spokesman John Perlich, however, said all the new incomes taxes are being used for public safety purposes as required by law.
But even though Bush hopes to create enough public pressure to produce a revised budget, Bush said the campaign should not be viewed as a threat. “We will do our jobs” even if the proposed budget passes, he promised.
Council gave its preliminary approval to the budget Tuesday, however, and a final vote could come next week.