Saint John Common Council has approved a plan to cut $1.875 million from the Saint John Fire budget as the city tries to eliminate a $10 million deficit for 2021.
The plan, established and presented by Saint John Fire Chief Kevin Clifford, will see the elimination of 24 firefighter positions and the permanent closure of the #8 Fire Station in the Millidgeville neighbourhood, north of uptown Saint John.
Of the 24 positions cut, half are full-time firefighters while the other half are holiday relief firefighters. Most of the positions will be eliminated through attrition.
Councillors voted unanimously to adopt the plan.
The #5 Fire Station on Adelaide Street in the old north end will pick up the slack left by the closure.
The decision did not sit well the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 771, the union representing Saint John Firefighters.
President Craig Melvin said the average response time will increase by three-and-a-half minutes, time that is so precious in a fire or other emergency situation.
“This is not just about closing a fire station, this is about public safety and the reduction of public safety,” Melvin said. “To close a fire station and not consult the public and to not to a full fire service review is shocking and irresponsible.”
Clifford’s plan includes a consultant’s review of the fire department, but it has yet to be scheduled.
“There will be staffing and some service-level impacts across the organization,” said Clifford in a City of Saint John news release. “Despite the challenges inherent to the service reductions, the Saint John Fire Department will continue to provide an effective and professional fire service, staffed with exceptional public servants with a world class commitment to public safety.”
News of the closure of the station saddened John Allen, who has lived across from #8 Fire Station for more than 30 years.
He said his children would play in the foam left behind by the previous training facility located there.
“My grandson, who now is eight, when he comes to visit, he likes to go over and go through the fire station and the firefighters giving him a tour of the trucks and showed him the boats,” Allen said, adding the child aspires to be a firefighter when he grows up.
At an apartment building around the corner, residents said they are disappointed and concerned about their safety and that of their neighbours.
“I don’t think it has to be done and I don’t know why they’re doing it,” said Theresa Goss of the station closure. “There’s times all the fire stations are tied up. Something happening out here, what are they going to do?”
“We’re trying to build Millidgeville up, not take away,” said Vicki Callahan. “So taking away the fire station is going to be a big loss.”
Callahan said she manages the apartment building. She said she’s worried home and renter’s insurance rates may increase as a result of the closure.
“I get a lot of calls from insurance companies wanting to know the closest fire department, closest fire hydrant,” she said. “(It’s) across the street. Now I don’t know. It’s 10 minutes down the road.”
Melvin said provincial tax reform would eliminate the need for changes like ones he and his colleagues are facing.
“The tax dollars are already here in Saint John,” Melvin began. “The provincial government takes too much of Saint John’s tax dollars. They collect $47 million, they give $17 million back in an unconditional grant. With the added industry in the area, it requires additional resources.
“Those resources can be put in place with some of the funding we get and keep. We’re not asking for any more. We’re asking to keep what’s generated here. And we’re not asking for all of it.”
Mayor Don Darling also stressed the need for tax reform. The provincial government has told the city it needs to do more to get its own finances under control before it gets any more assistance from Fredericton.
Darling said the cuts to the fire budget are an important step in that process.
“We’re not sustainable,” Darling said of Saint John. “If we don’t achieve these provincial reforms, namely taxation reform, and we don’t work on the affordability and some of the cost structure and issues we have, we’re going to be back having this conversation next year and the year after that.”
There are more challenging budget conversations looming for Saint John
Saint John Police Force and Saint John Transit are tasked with finding $1.3 million and $850,000 in savings, respectively, ahead of the 2021 budget.
Darling said Common Council is aiming to pass that budget in September.