Fayette County

City to shut down fire station for one day in cost-cutting move

The city will close Fire Station No. 4 on Jefferson Street for 24 hours on Saturday as part of a budget-cutting measure to reduce Lexington Fire Department costs.

Mayor Jim Newberry insisted the closing will not compromise public safety because there is a concentration of four other fire stations in a 1.6-mile radius of the historic Vogt Reel House.

"It is not some big deal," he said.

But Lt. Chris Bartley, president of Lexington Professional Firefighters Local 526, said that whenever response time is delayed, the public's safety is jeopardized.

"Just two or three minutes, if somebody needs emergency medical care or there's a structure fire, those minutes matter," he said.

That's why the union opposes the closing, not because it would limit the amount of overtime pay available to some firefighters at Christmas.

Newberry said that all 23 fire stations in the city are routinely out of service for some period of time almost every month for training or equipment maintenance.

It is possible other stations may be ordered closed for temporary periods, he said.

The three firefighters normally assigned to Station 4 on Saturday will fill vacancies at other stations where somebody is sick or on vacation, eliminating the need to fill those spots by firefighters working overtime.

The cost-cutting measures are necessary as the city faces a $13 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2010 that ends June 30.

Three weeks ago each division director in city government was told by Newberry to come up with a 5 percent reduction in their budgets.

Fire Chief Robert Hendricks said he has looked at several options, including possible personnel reduction, to cut 5 percent, or $2.7 million, from the fire department's annual $55 million budget.

The 24-hour "brown out" at Station 4 was one of those options.

Newberry said the city could ultimately save as much as $900,000 by reducing overtime in the fire department. "But to do that we needed to get started as soon as possible," he said.

Paying overtime has been an ongoing issue in the fire department in recent years, union leader Bartley said.

"If they hired properly to fill vacant positions, overrtime would not be the issue that it is," he said. "They would rather pay somebody overtime than hire a full-time person."

Last fiscal year, $3 million was budgeted for overtime in the department. The city decided to cut the overtime budget to $2.1 million this fiscal year, and use the $900,000 difference to hire new firefighters.

A class of 14 firefighters began training in July and is now on the force.

Another class of 26 will finish training in January.

Newberry said he anticipated coming up with a reduced city budget in the early part of January, "hopefully sooner."

"There are some very, very difficult decision ahead of us," he said.