New Bedford City Council Votes 8-1 Against Decommissioning Fire Engine 8
The 11-member New Bedford City Council voted Thursday to express its opposition to Mayor Jon Mitchell's plan to decommission a fire engine in the North End and close a downtown police station as part of the mayor's fiscal 2021 cost-cutting plan.
In an 8-1 count over two related measures, councilor Linda Morad cast the dissenting vote, and councilors Debora Coelho and Hugh Dunn did not vote because they were absent.
The council voted to send a letter to Mitchell opposing the elimination of Engine 8 at the Acushnet Avenue firehouse, as well as to oppose the planned closure of the downtown police substation on Pleasant Street. The councilors stated that "the closing of these two public safety buildings will be very detrimental to the areas they serve," petitioned Mitchell to look at "alternative cuts or surplus monies," and asked the city's delegates on Beacon Hill and Washington to push for financial assistance.
The councilors maintained that a new round of so-called SAFER grants (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) from FEMA will be available later this year to help local fire departments hire or retain staff. They suggested that Mitchell should tap into a $7.8 million "rainy day fund" to maintain police and fire budgets at this time.
Mitchell has said public safety cuts are necessary. In his fiscal 2021 budget address on July 15, Mitchell said the city faces an uncertain future, with expected long-term cuts to state aid due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said three-quarters of city spending is non-discretionary, that school spending can not be touched because it is at the lowest level allowed by the state, and that belt-tightening has happened across the board. He said public safety comprises half of all discretionary spending and that it's the best place to look for efficiencies. Mitchell said his budget draws $2 million from the stabilization fund and also relies upon free cash, a fix he claims is not a sustainable over the long term.
Mitchell maintained that a reduction in the fire department's overall footprint can be made "without materially compromising its capacity to carry out its core mission, namely preventing and putting out fires." He cited a recent change in dispatch policy that resulted in a steep drop in calls requiring a fire apparatus for routine medical calls. Mitchell said other cities of comparable size maintain smaller fire departments, and that there is still a hybrid engine and ladder at Acushnet Avenue. He said the decision to mothball Engine 8 was based on input from Fire Chief Paul Coderre.
The New Bedford Firefighters IAFF Local 841 has blasted Mitchell's decision, saying "having a single apparatus cover the North End from Coggeshall Street to Freetown, and in between Fairhaven and Dartmouth, while also covering the immediate area around Station 8, is reckless and irresponsible." The union slammed Mitchell's previous decision to decommission Engine 11 in the South End, cited two recent fire deaths, and said the mayor's cuts have imperiled public safety.
Public protests against the Engine 8 closure have ramped up in recent weeks, with former Mayor Scott Lang joining a recent demonstration at City Hall. Speaking from the podium, Lang claimed Mitchell was jumping the gun when it came to state funding, and said there is "no financial crisis" necessitating the move, according to a report from the Standard Times. "We don’t have a reason to cut, we don’t have a reason to put people in jeopardy," Lang said.
Mitchell snapped back with his own statement. “The residents of our city, especially the thousands who have lost their jobs in the past few months, know better than to accept former Mayor Lang’s claim that there is ‘no financial crisis,’” the mayor told the newspaper.
Mitchell has also defended his decision to close the downtown police station. He says consolidating operations at the new public safety complex under construction in the South End will eliminate duplicative command structures, allow for data-driven policing, transfer "desk officer" positions to street officer positions, and free up money to buy new police cruisers.
Mitchell has said "by making tougher decisions now" the city will be in a better position to weather long-term financial challenges without resorting to layoffs.
The city's fiscal 2021 budget has not yet been finalized, and the council meets Monday Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. for its annual cost-cutting session.
During a recent public safety protest in New Bedford, U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, who is challenging Sen. Ed Markey in the Sept. 1 Democratic primary, said federal legislation that would help cities like New Bedford is stalled in the Senate.