ANDERSON, Ind. — A year ago, city leaders debated staffing levels at the Anderson Fire Department.
This year, the discussion at budget time has turned to closing stations and building a new fire headquarters.
How large a fire department the city needs and can afford in an era of dwindling tax revenue and steadily declining population continues to be an intense political battle.
Last year, that debate centered on department staffing and administration plans to layoff 20 firefighters, nine police officers and employees in other city departments to achieve a balanced budget. A compromise was worked out between the Smith administration and City Council that reduced the number of fire department layoffs to seven and set permanent staffing at 113 firefighters.
Although staffing is still a concern, the focus now is on the department’s plan next year to close stations 1 and 6 and build a new headquarters near St. Vincent Anderson Regional Hospital.
In June, the department closed station 3, 2130 Columbus Ave., and moved its heavy rescue truck to station 1 at 44 W. Fifth St. Station 3 is now being used as fire investigation and prevention offices, according to Chief Phillip Rogers.
The city’s plans are based largely on a study conducted by R.W. Bassett & Associates, an Illinois fire service consulting firm hired by the Smith administration to evaluate the fire department. The report made 40 specific recommendations. The most controversial are:
u Reducing the number of stations to five, manned by 25 firefighters per shift.
u Closing and relocating stations to eliminate coverage overlap.
u Putting a fourth ambulance into service to reflect the growing number of emergency medical service calls the department responds to.
u Training more firefighters as paramedics -- 80 percent of the department’s workload is medical.
u The department should be sized to handle one structure fire and all EMS calls.
In an interview last week, Mayor Kevin Smith said he’s had to deal with two hard realities in preparing budgets the past two years: a city population that declined by 20,000 over the past couple of decades, and property tax revenue that dropped by $9 million since 2005.