WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
New York City Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano told a City Council panel Monday that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to cut 20 fire companies will negatively impact every single council district. He blamed both federal and state cut backs.
"The level of cuts we are facing now -- including the closure of 20 fire companies -- will negatively affect response times to fires and life-threatening medical emergencies," testified Cassano.
Cassano said that in addition to personnel cuts made last year, more than 500 positions are slated to be cut by attrition in the upcoming budget.
Last year the FDNY made more than 500,000 runs, the most emergencies on record. Cassano said successive cuts in the FDNY's civilian support staff left him no choice but to turn to the EMS and FDNY operations budget.
"In total, this adds up to a potential loss in headcount of 905 positions, or eight percent of the uniformed workforce," Cassano told the council.
Cassano said he already has the list of 20 companies targeted for elimination but he declined to share it with the council. He said that Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith had a copy as well. That outraged City Council Finance Chair Domenic Recchia who said the council could not proceed to meet its charter obligations to make a budget without the list.
"I am directing committee legal counsel to draft a Freedom of Information request for that document," boomed Recchia. Other committee members called upon the chairman to use the council's subpoena power.
Under close questioning from council member Elizabeth Crowley, Cassano conceded the FDNY was still 270 firefighters below their budgeted headcount. Cassano said a long standing court battle over the FDNY's hiring practices and the city's diversity program prevented the department from filling those slots.
Council members said the failure to hire the budgeted head count was actually costing the city dearly in overtime.
Cassano conceded that being short-handed carried a $200 million price tag in over time, up by 25 percent from last year.
Recent fatal fires in the Bronx and Brooklyn in illegally subdivided apartments prompted city council member Peter Vallone to ask if the loss of 20 companies would impair the department's inspection function. Cassano conceded they would. "Loss of 20 companies will mean it will be harder to get those done," Cassano said.
For the last few years, proposed FDNY cuts have been a flash point for the city council. Historically, the council has used some of its discretionary funds to restore the fire cuts. This year, however, the council faces multiple demands for that special consideration.
The city council and the Mayor have until the end of June to reach a budget deal.