By Stuart Hirsch
The Herald Bulletin
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.
“I understand the emotional reaction that some people have about some of the actions we have proposed, but the fact is in Anderson we have to be more efficient and and we have to do more with less,” Smith said.
City Council President David Eicks, D-At Large, has been particularly critical of the plan to close station 1 and build a new one.
Built in 1975, station 1 reportedly needs significant costly repairs to its electrical, heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems. Mold problems exist inside the building, and plaster is dropping off the outside, according to Rogers.
The city’s proposal is to build a new 20,000-square-foot fire station that would cost anywhere from $3.5 to $5 million. After that new facility is built, according to the Basset report, the city should close Station 6 at 133 W. 29th St., the city’s oldest.
“I don’t feel comfortable with decisions that are being made by the chief,” Eicks said last week. “It makes no business sense to me to close three fire stations and build a new station.”
Part of Eicks’ wariness is the city’s experience in building a new police station a decade ago. “After we built the new police department it has been nothing but problems and headaches.”
He has urged Smith to consider creating a commission of local business people to review the administration’s proposal and make recommendations.
Smith said he isn’t necessarily opposed to that kind of citizen participation but added, “We were elected to make some very difficult decisions about the operations of city government. We don’t take that responsibility lightly, nor do we shirk that responsibility. We are capable of making decisions on behalf of the citizens we were elected to serve.”
Meanwhile, the department’s proposed staffing of level of 111 firefighters in fiscal 2014 remains a concern to Anderson Firefighters Local 1262. The union commissioned its own study last year, conducted by the International Association of Fire Fighters.
That report concluded that the department’s practice of manning equipment with three firefighters and cross-staffing did not meet certain performance standards established by the National Fire Protection Association.
Local 1262 President Cody Leever was not immediately available for comment about the department’s 2014 proposed budget.
Like Stu Hirsch on Facebook and follow him @stuhirsch on Twitter, or call 640-4861.