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Cuts to Metrobus, too, ahead of 2021 budget announcement
The union representing firefighters in St. John’s is calling impending budget cuts “disappointing” and “a reckless decision.”
In a series of tweets Wednesday afternoon, the St. John’s Fire Fighters Association (SJFFA) explained decisions made by the St. John’s Regional Fire Department (SJRFD) and the city around firefighter staffing in order to balance the challenging 2021 budget, which will be announced Dec. 7 when city council votes on the budget.
Union president Craig Smith said the current daily staffing minimum is 39 firefighters. While 44 people are scheduled any given day, those numbers can be reduced, due to illness, for example, to 39 and service can still be provided.
If fewer than 39 people are on, firefighters are called in to cover the shifts. To help balance the city budget, that minimum will be reduced to 37, the union says.
🔥1) Local 1075 has some disappointing news to share. Yesterday the City of St. John’s and the SJRFD have decided because of budget shortfalls for 2021 they will reduce minimum daily staffing from 39 firefighters on shift to 37. What does this mean ? LADDER 3 will be removed— IAFF Local 1075 St. John's Firefighters. (@IAFFLocal1075) November 25, 2020
The reduction will be felt with the ladder truck service. The SJRFD has two ladder trucks — typically used when buildings are two stories or higher.
Smith said one of those will be taken out of service on days when staffing levels fall below 39.
“Without that ladder truck there, for a two-storey, or three-storey, or four-storey building that’s on fire, and somebody’s trapped, we’re the ones that are going to have to deal with that consequence, and I’d hate to see some tragedy occur as a result of us not having the proper apparatus and proper personnel on scene,” said Smith.
He said the change is going to be worrisome and stressful for firefighters.
“Knowing what the outcomes can be, knowing what the potential and the possibility is, that’s what’s going to scare us.”
This is not the first cut to the SJRFD in an effort to get a balanced 2021 budget.
In October, firefighter recruitment was suspended. It was announced at that time that the postponement would be re-evaluated in the new year.
Metrobus service diminished
Metrobus services are also on the chopping block.
Starting Jan. 4, riders can expect to see the service cut back to what’s known as the summer schedule. That means, for example, that the length of time between pickups will increase from 15 to 30 minutes on routes 1, 2, 3 and 10, and bus service on some routes will stop at 11:30 p.m. instead of 12:30 a.m.
Moving to the summer schedule for 2021 until the end of August — at which point the situation will be re-evaluated — will mean a $500,000 decrease to the Metrobus operating grant from the city.
Metrobus will also defer its planned increase in route frequency that was scheduled for September this year until September next year, saving another $300,000 in the budget.
The 2021 Metrobus subsidy will now be $17.6 million.
“This decision has me torn up, honestly,” Coun. Dave Lane said Wednesday afternoon during a media availability to discuss Metrobus cuts.
“I don’t like that we are doing this, that we have to do this, but there’s a lot of challenging decisions that have to be made.”
He said he’s losing sleep over the city’s budget decisions.
Lane, who is council’s lead for finance, said Metrobus has seen significantly lower ridership rates since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic — down by about 50 per cent — and the trend is expected to continue into 2021 as people continue to work from home, and as post-secondary campuses remain closed to in-person classes.
There will be no changes to bus routes, and no impact on Go Bus, he said.
Municipalities are required to have a balanced budget, and are not permitted to borrow funds for operating costs.
Lane said the city is working to find savings in order to avoid an increase to the mill rate.
In September, Lane said there would be public engagement on the budget, but on Wednesday he told The Telegram there wasn’t enough time. However, he said he and Mayor Danny Breen are considering holding a public budget preview session next week, with an opportunity for residents to ask questions.
Juanita Mercer reports on municipal issues in St. John's.