Bowling Green fire levy to affect firefighters’ future

Jason Henry and Jason Henry

The Bowling Green Fire Department is seeking a 0.08 percent income tax increase in the November elections to maintain its current level of service and staff.

“That would be added to the 1.92 percent income tax that citizens pay for earned income,” said John Fawcett, municipal administrator. “The result would be, obviously, 2.0 percent. For that 0.08 percent, we anticipate that would be sufficient to make up what we project to be the shortfall in our fire levy fund, sufficient to keep six firefighters on the job.”

Fawcett said it is not known if all six firefighters would be laid off if the levy does not pass, but some of the department’s 51 uniformed staff members would need to be let go.

“We’ve had devastating fires, where there was a tremendous amount of loss of property, and its always a very sad event,” Fawcett said, “Because we have such a good response time, a very well trained fire force and excellent equipment, often times the damage is minimal. If we lose something as critical as six firefighters in a fire station, I fear the outcome.”

Fawcett said the amount generated by the levy, $600,000, will allow the department to maintain the workforce in its entire strength.

Financial Director Brian Bushong said that 26 staff members’ salaries and benefits are paid through money in the current levy fund, but the remaining funds can only support 20 employees. Without a new levy, the current fund’s balance will be as low as $98,943 down from a peak of $2,222,143 in 2002. 

To cut costs, a five percent decrease in the city’s non-utility workforce has already been made, but more reductions will be needed if the levy does not succeed.

Fire Chief Stephen Meredith said the department’s Pearl Street station could be affected if the vote does not pass.

“We may have to reduce the number of personnel that are currently at that station, which would affect the responses that come out of there,” Meredith said. “Of course, we’d rather not reduce anything, but if you don’t have the money, you can’t afford the manpower and personnel is the highest expense. We have cut about everything else we could possibly cut other than personnel.”

The worst case scenario, he said, would be the closure of the second station, which opened in 2000.

On top of the six possible lay-offs, the fire department will lose three staff members to retirement next year.

Reductions in staff at the second station will affect all of the city, as the station responds to calls all over Bowling Green, not just the west side, Meredith said.

“The entire city that will suffer,” he said. “It isn’t just a west side resident problem, it is everyone, including the University student body.”

Emergency medical services’ responses time will also slow, as fire department staff members are both firefighters and emergency medical technicians, Fawcett said.

“Our firefighters not only go through extensive training for fighting fire, but depending on their being an advanced EMT or paramedic, they receive tremendous amounts of additional training to respond to medical emergencies,” Fawcett said. “Really in this community, its the medical emergency response that has the largest share of time committed to emergency response.”

According to information provided by Fawcett, of 2,407 recorded emergency incidents in 2009, 1,843 incidents required ambulance services.

“If we lose somebody and a year later we are able to hire that person back, we cannot expect that person’s level of training is going to be equal to what he was at the day he was laid off,” Fawcett said. “There is also a chance he will be employed elsewhere, but even if he were not, he could not come back, jump onto an ambulance and expect to perform those kind of duties at the level that the citizens of Bowling Green expect.”

Meredith said laid off employees would be highly valuable to other cities because of their existing training.

Meredith said $12,000 is spent on initial certification for each employee. Recertification, which happens every three years, is done in-house.

“That’s money another city would not have to spend if they were to lure them away, and then we just lost all of the money we invested into them,” he said.