Inside A Budget Fight: Neighborhood Meetings

By Scott Joerger

In this series, Scott Joerger discusses his and other firefighters’ opinions about and response to the attempt to shut down his engine company.

At the company level, our goal was to meet with business owners and residents in the area to listen to what they had to say and express concerns we have about how this engine company benefits the quality of life and business in the area. It would have been helpful having some guidance from the local union, but it was busy working on other things. After almost two weeks of meeting with business owners and residents in our first-in response area, we had distributed 3,500 informational flyers about the proposed budget cut and the date that the community members could attend a meeting and voice their opinions to the mayor.  Many people we spoke to supported the engine and said they would attend the meeting. We knew we were having a positive impact for the cause after I received a phone call from our fire administration. It had received a complaint from city hall that it was becoming inundated with phone calls from the public about the firehouse closing. City hall wanted this to stop because it detracted from other affairs and regular business. We did our best to advise people to attend the meeting and not to call city hall. After this, I was expecting a big crowd as payoff for our work; I would have been satisfied if just a few hundred showed up. I had no idea how wrong I would be.

The first important meeting was the neighborhood workshop the mayor had set up for the public to voice their opinions on the budget crisis and to look to the community for solutions. On the day of this meeting we made up sandwich board signs and put them around the streets to remind people to show up. I arrived at the meeting early and found our union reps outside the entrance doors distributing more informational flyers. Their flyers were four pages long and single spaced. I tried to read one but did not have the time. What I saw was good information that I wish they had given to me two weeks ago to add to our flyers. I would have liked that information, but I would have put it in bulleted form.  

Also standing outside were a number of off-duty firefighters. Some were from my company; many were wearing fire department T-shirts and jackets. I headed inside to see the turnout so far and was a little surprised to see how light the crowd was. There was still time, but things were not looking good. By the time the meeting started, only about 170 showed up. The budget director and the mayor gave a talk about the budget and then broke the 170 into groups interested in supporting a particular city department, like fire, police, recreation, library, and so on. These smaller groups had the task of discussing the cuts and finding alternatives to finance that department. That really was not what I had expected; I thought that I would see the mayor and budget director standing in front of a large audience fielding questions from a cohesive group that was against budget cuts to the fire department and would not tolerate these cuts. Maybe even some people would be yelling as they pleaded our cause. None of that happened from the defused group. In fact, there were only three tables of fire department supporters in the large meeting room.

 I counted the number of people who showed up at these tables in support of the fire department. There were some I did not count, such as relatives of firefighters who lived in the area and showed up to support that particular relative. I also did not count the 12 or so who were from the local neighborhood association—that is a cohesive group that works very hard for the neighborhood and is always involved in city meetings and activities. I counted the number of people who came to support us after we had gone door to door to every business and residence in our first-in area and handed out 3,500 pieces of paper, so many of whom had said they would show up at this meeting. The number of those who showed up after all this effort, including the reminder sandwich boards, was somewhere between 12 and 15. This was a huge disappointment for us. We had not received the support I felt we needed. As I said before, this is a tough neighborhood.

The neighborhood workshop meeting came and went without any incident or change. The only problem I saw was that some of the off-duty younger firefighters attending inserted themselves into the three tables. I really did not think this was a good idea. This should have been a chance for residents and the public to voice solutions, not off-duty firefighters, who were easy to recognize by the department paraphernalia they were sporting.

Another important meeting was the monthly neighborhood association meeting. I had spoken to the association president several times in the past few weeks, and he was very much against the proposed budget cut. He asked me to attend this meeting so I could answer questions from this group about our engine company and the hole that would be created in service when we closed. This was a group that would be loud and vocal and would oppose this cut, but they were basically the same group who attended the previous workshop meeting with the mayor. From past meetings we attended, there are usually about 12 to 20 concerned residents and business owners who attend meetings and are very focused on improving the area. They try to work with city hall to express their concerns for improvements. We prepared another informational flyer for this meeting by looking at the last few weeks of responses. In the three weeks since the proposed budget cuts were announced, our engine company had been busy. We had responded to six working fires, including two second-alarm fires. At one incident civilians were removed from a multiple-family dwelling that was severely exposed from a large, raging vacant building fire. In EMS, we assisted a patient with the delivery of her baby and had successfully defibrillated and restored a pulse to another patient. These were incidents where we made a difference and the result would have been different if we had not been there. This is exactly the type of information the association president was looking for. He wanted to conduct a press conference with his group to show support.

Unfortunately, no one showed up for the monthly meeting- -so much for the 12 to 20 who usually show up. At this meeting, there were fewer than  10! That included the president, his wife, and the secretary. Also in attendance was one of the senior deputy chiefs, who had also come to explain the impact of the budget cuts. I was very disappointed with the turnout once again. It seemed that most people from the neighborhood could care less about whether or not we closed. In my opinion, it also appeared to make the budget cuts to the engine easy. I am sure the mayor and fire chief did not want to make these cuts, but no one was attending meetings to voice their objections to the cuts. This was a tough realization. The engine was very busy. It played such an important part in protecting life and property in the neighborhood and city. It is going to be easy to close the firehouse because the firefighters seem to be the only ones in the neighborhood concerned about this! At the meeting, I handed out six of the new flyers detailing all the important fires and EMS calls we had responded to in the past three weeks and went home. I would have stayed and answered any questions, but none were asked. Although the neighbor association president intended on conducting a press conference to show support for the engine and firehouse, he never followed through. I was fairly certain, at this point, that we were going to close as proposed. There was not much time left, and all the work done at the company level up to this point seemed to have little effect.

SCOTT JOERGER is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and a former volunteer chief of the Pittsford Fire Department. He has worked as a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. He has an associate degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in management.

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