Firefighters at last night’s Ann Arbor City Council meeting exchanged strong words for what they called budget cuts in their department. But Mayor John Hieftje maintained that the city is merely making changes to its overtime policies.

Hieftje, a Democrat, said the city decreased the number of overtime hours it allows firefighters to work because of Ann Arbor’s changing firefighting needs.

He said the number of fires in structures nationwide has fallen by 40 percent and by even more in Ann Arbor due to increased building safety and fire prevention. Hieftje added that the firefighting cuts were not in response to city budget shortfalls and said the city may run a small surplus this year.

Andrew Box, vice president of Local Firefighter’s Union 69, said these cuts will lead to occasional closures of Station 2, which provides emergency services to University sports complexes as well as student and Greek housing along Hill Street.

Hieftje refuted the claim, saying that no stations will be closed by the cuts. Hieftje said the major impact on Station 2 has been the occasional loss of a ladder truck, but a smaller emergency vehicle has been available.

Box said the cuts are partially due to diminished state funding for fire protection of the University campus. The state cut $480,000 from the year’s fire protection budget.

Some community members are also worried about the cuts; Hieftje said picketers gathered outside city hall yesterday protesting the budget issue. People at the council meeting expressed concern that cuts aimed at reducing overtime hours could risk lives in emergency situations because of decreased manpower and slowed response time.

Ann Arbor resident Bob Barrett told the Council he felt the cuts came because “the fire department missed its budget for Fire Fighter overtime by $700,000.” He added that he feels the council has placed a monetary value on life by balancing budget priorities against life-saving emergency services.

Box said these fears are justified. “We have documented response time increases up to six minutes and 41 seconds additional from an average response time of three to four minutes, depending on truck availability,” he said, adding that the response time has doubled in some situations.

He said current overtime hours are necessary because 11 of the 117 firefighting positions “on the floor” – or on active duty responding to emergencies – are unfilled and will remain unfilled under council budgeting.

The city requires a minimum of three firefighters on every truck, but the standard recommended minimum is four to five per truck, Box said.

Some community members said they support the city’s move to tighten the budget. “I think that times are tough,” Ann Arbor resident Tim Colenback said. “We don’t have the money we had in the ’90s. I don’t think we can afford $1.2 million for overtime.”

Ann Arbor resident Douglas Scott had similar feelings. “I blinked when I saw six-figure pensions for some firefighters,” Scott said. He questioned whether tax dollars are going to pensions or safety.

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