Local firefighters union calls Morgantown’s proposed city budget ‘dangerous’

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MORGANTOWN, W.VA – Firefighters Local 313, the local union of firefighters in Morgantown, is dissatisfied with the proposed budget from City Manager Paul Brake because they said it puts the safety of citizens and firefighters at risk.

The initially proposed budget would decrease the number of firefighters from 61-49, a reduction of 12 positions. City Manager Paul Brake explained that the city simply cannot afford to keep those 12 positions, which were added in 2017 as part of a Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant from the federal government. The grant runs for three years and ends in November 2020.

During a city council meeting on Tuesday, March 3, the city offered to retain six of the 12 positions, however, that still doesn’t sit well with the union, President Jayson Nicewarner said.

“Six isn’t good enough for us we want it to be zero we want to retain all 12 of those firefighting positions,” Nicewarner said. “So we will definitely be at the budget committee workshop next Tuesday and hopefully city council will be able to come up with some sort of revenue or additional fire service fee or whatever feels proper to give the citizens what they serve as protection and also to give the firefighters the safety they deserve.”

In order to keep all 12 firefighters the city will have to find $1.1 million in revenue whether that’s from the roughly $39 million proposed budget for the next fiscal year, or in addition to that figure.

To raise additional funds, the city will have to go to property owners to ask for funds in the form of a tax. Logically, Brake said, a new tax will result in property owners asking why it is necessary and he cannot justify it to them. When there is a greater need for firefighters because of an emergency too big for the department to handle on its own other fire departments are called to assist.

“It doesn’t happen that often so I think we need to look at a realistic staffing need not in a catastrophe,” Brake said. “We can come up with all kinds of scenarios of kind of a doomsday sort of example. That’s not possible to achieve that so we have to look at realistically what does occur and what will occur and the indicators of what happened in the past is a good way of predicting what is adequate staffing needs.”

Ladder 3 parked inside the S. High St. fire station where Nicewarner works.

Nicewarner said the SAFER Grant was the first time since the 1960s that the department was able to add manpower and therefore, it did not make sense to take away the added manpower. Especially, he said, considering the city’s population growth, growth of West Virginia University, and an increase in the number of highrise buildings, which need ladder trucks to extinguish fires.

“Adding those additional firefighters allowed us to put an additional ladder into service it also allowed us to put four firefighters on each engine,” Nicewarner said. “If we take those numbers away, we will lose one of our ladder trucks and only be able to run one ladder truck and possibly fall back to only three firefighters on the engines, which would jeopardize the safety of firefighters.”

Another problem the union has with the decision to cut the number of firefighters, Nicewarner said, is the Insurance Service Organization (ISO) will raise the insurance rates for homeowners and business owners.

The ISO lowered rates once the grant was awarded in 2017 because the city had an extra ladder in operation to respond to fires in multistory buildings and more manpower. For that reason, Nicewarner said, he absolutely does not agree with the budget proposal.

The proposal is just that, it’s not final. The final budget will be voted on by the city council on March 17. However, until then, the council will have a work session on Tuesday, March 11 at 7 p.m., which Nicewarner said he plans on attending.

“I believe during our budget process we have encountered challenges in the past and we’ve come up with some solutions,” Brake said. “We need a sustainable solution, not a quick fix, but something that could provide an adequate funding level and provide the protection that’s needed in the community and really drill down with the guidelines what is absolutely necessary, what do we need to provide the level of protection that there is the comfort level that we find as satisfactory.”

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