Times are tough and everyone's feeling the pinch. The present economic climate is unpredictable, to say the least, and the board is faced with unique pressures this budget season.
Fighting to achieve a balance, trustees are debating possible cuts to village services and deferments to some major capital projects to arrive at an acceptable tax rate increase for Garden City taxpayers. They reviewed several budget scenarios to get the tax rate increase to 8 percent. If a 7.83 percent tax rate increase was approved, the average household in Garden City would see an approximate $400 spike.
The task is no easy feat.
This proved true at a heated budget session March 12 where, at times, trustees and members of the Citizen's Budget Committee squared off on certain line items. They weighed the pros and cons of such cuts, including the possibility of closing a firehouse in the village, all while department heads pleaded their cases against the consequences of compromised services.
With numerous Garden City firefighters present, trustees debated ways to cut back on some of the fire department's overtime costs.
Garden City is one of only two on Long Island to have both a paid and volunteer department; the City of Long Beach also operates in this way.
The issue of whether or not the village needs both a paid and volunteer department has been debated and talks are ongoing about possibly closing one or two outlying fire stations.
Garden City firefighters work out of three stations that are maintained on a 24-hour basis. Headquarters Company is located at the west end of village hall on Stewart Avenue. Station 2 is located at Edgemere Road and Stewart Avenue and Station 3 at St. James Street North at Clinton Road.
Currently, the department's average response time is between two-and-a-half to three minutes, according to Captain Frank. If, for example, Clinton Road's Station 3 closed, response times for firefighters responding from Headquarters Company on Stewart Avenue could add another two-and-a-half to three minutes.
Captain Gil Frank does not recommend closing any firehouse. "I don't think it's practical. I think it's dangerous. We're in a business where seconds count," he said. "Hanging a dollar sign over public safety does not make sense."
The department is authorized to operate with 29 career firefighters and five career lieutenants. Right now, the department has one firefighter vacancy and a firefighter retirement is likely this August, bringing the total number of career firefighters available for duty to 27.
When it comes down to possibly closing one or more outlying fire stations or changing over to a proposed flexible staffing level, the latter appears to be the lesser of two evils.
Currently, seven firefighters and one lieutenant report for duty Monday through Friday on day tours while six firefighters and one lieutenant report for duty during evening and weekend tours.
If the board opts for the department to operate under this proposal, five career firefighters and one career lieutenant would report for duty for all tours, including day, evening and weekends.
This scenario, Captain Frank noted, would result in one less fire engine being manned by career staff. Instead, the engine that comes out of headquarters would be mothballed for the next tour.
Though the change in staffing could yield a cost savings "well over" $250,000 in salary and overtime, Captain Frank said, it doesn't come without its downfalls.
This staffing change would also result in the loss of backup provided for subsequent alarms. "We have a fair amount of simultaneous alarms here in Garden City," Captain Frank said. For example, if there's an alarm on the east end of the village, members of Headquarters Company and Station 3 respond while Station 2 relocates to fire headquarters to provide coverage in the event of another call. "We would lose that coverage," Captain Frank said.
Dispatching would be effected as well. Headquarters Company members dispatch alarms. While responding to any given alarm, dispatching duties are temporarily turned over to Firecom until the relocating unit comes in to take over.
"Also, in the event of a fire, based on the severity of that fire, we recall career personnel from home. One of the responsibilities of the relocating company is to initiate the recall. So we'll lose that capability as well," Captain Frank added.
Roy Ryniker, chairman of the Citizens' Budget Review Committee, argued that the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) standards allow for up to nine minutes in response time.
"It's what you want to accept as an acceptable response time," Captain Frank said. "It's a national standard. That's the average. Suburban communities should be below that average."
Captain Frank took offense too when Ryniker suggested the village retain an independent consultant for a cost of $25,000 to take a closer look at the fire department's operations.
"I came here with no allegiance to anybody ... The task I received was to look at operations and make recommendations and improvements, which is part of what I have done. For someone to look over my shoulder, I take affront to that," Captain Frank, a former battalion commander in charge of 150 firefighters and 25 officers, said. "What better qualifications would a consultant have?"
The police department could also see changes to its staffing levels, specifically the elimination of four police officer vacancies to help cut back on overtime costs.
Currently the department has 14 supervisory positions, one commissioner, one inspector, five lieutenants, six sergeants and one detective/sergeant. Five police officers work the day (7 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and evening (4 p.m. to 11 p.m.) tours while four police officers report for the midnight (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) tour.
If the vacant positions are not filled, as authorized in the current budget, staffing numbers would drop to four, four and three - four officers working the day and evening tours and three officers reporting for the midnight tour.
"Operating with the personnel currently available will not significantly reduce overtime expenses," Commissioner Ernest Cipullo said. "It may result in reducing the number of patrol posts to a minimum staffing of 4-4-3, affecting response times and level of service."
Currently, the department has five patrol posts. Using the 4-4-3 staffing level would eliminate two posts, Nassau Boulevard, with Rockaway Avenue on the east end to Roxbury Road on the west end and then the village line north and south.
"This absolutely is going to reduce the response time," the commissioner said. "We pride ourselves in the fact that we have a two minute or less response time in an emergency. It's not going to happen if you expand the geographic area a police officer has to cover. It's logical that he's not going to get where he's supposed to go in a timely fashion."
He takes exception to all the "misinformation being put forth and the inference that the police department is being mismanaged."
It's unfortunate, he said, because the department has been operating most of the year with those five vacant officer positions. A civil service list has not been available and to make matters worse, the department has three to four long-term, line-of-duty injuries, one military leave, which has been extended due to combat injuries and most recently, three other police officers that went out on long-term illness.
"The police department is a 24-7, 365-day operation. Minimum manpower to cover five patrol posts is what we have," Commissioner Cipullo said. "Given the numbers of police officers not available for duty and the nature of our business, we are first responders. We save lives. We find it impossible to operate without expending overtime."
For the 2007-2008 $656,684 minus $61,000 in special grant monies returned to the department totaled $595,084 in expenditures.
The projected overtime for 2008-2009 for the same number of personnel is $754,098 minus $87,800 in special grant monies, totaling $666,298 projected for the next budget. "This is somewhat less than the million dollars that's been mentioned that we've spent on overtime," the commissioner said.
Trustee Don Brudie, who represents the Central section of Garden City, said, "There's an old axiom, don't cut services that are life saving." He added too that crime goes up when a recession sets in. "This is not a viable condition we should accept," he said, arguing that there's no guarantee overtime won't be required with the 5-5-4 scenario or the 4-4-3 scenario.
The commissioner said his department takes great pride in the service it's able to provide the Garden City community. "I think we do a fantastic job in keeping the bad guys out," he said. "If you wish to not fill these vacancies, I'll work with whatever I have but I can't sit here and guarantee you that the residents of this village are going to receive the same level of service that we provide now."