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Budget cuts have severe impact on public safety

Date: 3/15/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — City Councilor Thomas Ashe heard from both Police Commissioner William Fitchet and Fire Commissioner Joseph Contant how dire the results would be if the budgets of their respective departments were cut by 10 percent.

Both men appeared at a Public Safety subcommittee meeting on March 12. Ashe wanted to begin the education process for the council so when it votes on the budget in June it will be aware of the impact.

The commissioners were told to prepare budgets with a 10 percent reduction.

"We need to add instead of subtract. Ten percent is not a real number," Contant said.

The reductions would be felt in fire personnel, training and equipment, he added. Contant said he receives requests to return fire equipment to neighborhood stations from residents but cannot fulfill these requests due to current budget restraints.

The Fire Department has had the same level of funding for training for past decade, Contant said.

He also noted the number of firefighters is already on the decline, but there will be additional positions open in the next seven years as 80 people are expected to retire.

Fitchet said he is given the same funding as last year — level funding — because of increased costs he would have to transfer the cost of the police officers serving in the schools to the School Department, eliminate 16 vacant positions, forgo any raises, eliminate the 20-member police academy class and lay off a combination of 27 officers and civilian staffers.

With the 10 percent cut, he would do all of the previously mentioned steps, he would have to lay off 88 officers and civilian employees.

Fitchet said the department has 170 fewer positions than 11 years ago. He said the department is under-staffed.

Fitchet also detailed how the aging police fleet is costing the city additional cost in repair. The department doesn't have the funding to adequately replace cruisers and Fitchet said the Crown Victoria, the standard in police cars, is no longer being manufactured. The department has purchased 10 all-wheel drive vehicles to see if they can take the punishments of being used 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Deputy Chief Robert McFarlin said that in his 35 years on the force "the fleet has never been older.

Deputy Chief John Barbieri spoke of the need to replace the protective vests officers wear. A large number of them are more than five years old, at which time they lose some of their effectiveness. Barbieri reminded the vests are "ballistic resistant, but not bulletproof" and new vests gives officers greater confidence as they perform their duties.

The department currently needs 162 new vests, which would cost $120,000.