Before the current coronavirus pandemic even began to unfold there was already vigorous debate about funding public safety locally. The crisis has only intensified that debate.

Two major fires in New Bedford just hours apart have focused attention on the looming budget crisis and whether public safety levels will be able to be maintained, nevermind if we'll be able to restore an engine company that was mothballed during a previous economic downturn.

The Mitchell Administration was already facing pushback from the community for replacing the unpopular and controversial rolling blackouts at fire stations with the even more unpopular and controversial decommissioning of Engine 11. The firefighters union and community activists staged protests at various times and locations, including the inaugural ceremonies at the Zeiterion in January.

Opponents say the move increases response times and makes the city less safe. The administration argues that the response time is still far better than any of the surrounding communities that rely mainly on volunteers to fight fires. The mayor has said the new public safety center under construction on Brock Avenue will ease the situation when it opens next year.

Those who are demanding a restoration of funds to the fire department need to consider the dire economic straights the city and the state are facing as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. There are likely to be severe reductions in state aid to cities like New Bedford that are already experiencing a considerable reduction in revenues. Both are looking towards Washington for help but whether or not that is realistic has yet to be determined.

One thing is for certain, New Bedford has an economic crisis for the balance of this fiscal year that will intensify dramatically in the next fiscal year. Mayor Mitchell tells me there are liable to be some deep cuts and higher taxes required to fix all of this. Everything, including public safety, is on the table at this point.

The financial realities of the new fiscal year that begins on July 1 could be sobering. Be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.

Barry Richard is the host of The Barry Richard Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. Contact him at barry@wbsm.com and follow him on Twitter @BarryJRichard58. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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