JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department may have to close three stations and a marine unit to pay for new trucks, a move that Chief Marty Senterfitt said will result in the loss of life.
JFRD asked for $18 million to add new trucks to its fleet, but the City Council finance committee has only approved $6 million.
"If we don't have a fleet that is dependable, you call 911 in Jacksonville and the apparatus that is responsible for responding may not even make it to you if it's in service," Senterfitt said. "It may break down en route. We can't be in that situation.
"There will be a day, within weeks and not months, where someone will die or someone's house will burn down to the ground entirely, and we'll have to ask ourselves as we sleep at night, 'Would it have made a difference if that engine would be there?'"
Scraping by is how some would describe the condition of the Fire Department's trucks. Many of them are about 10-13 years old and are falling apart.
"Engine 20 was on an emergency scene and literally the wheel broke off the fire engine because it's just old," Senterfitt said.
With the money City Council is giving JFRD, it can only buy a third of the trucks it needs.
On Friday, 25 percent of the department's ladder trucks were out of service, and there have been other times when 10-15 units a day have broken down.
"The challenge is even if I have fire stations and firefighters in those fire stations, if I don't have apparatus to respond with, it does me no good," Senterfitt said.
JFRD bought eight engine trucks last year that should be delivered this month, its first purchase in five years. It's been 10 years since the department bought ladder trucks, and if it doesn't get the trucks it needs now, Senterfitt said that will put the department in even more of a bind.
"Fire engines are custom built," he said. "There is no supermarket of fire engines. Once we are given the dollars to purchase fire engines, it's about a year before we receive any of the fire engines."
Senterfitt said this year's money isn't even enough to pay for a year's worth of trucks, much less make up for the backlog of trucks JFRD hasn't purchased.
That's why on Friday, City Council suggested JFRD shut down fire stations to pay for the needed trucks.
So currently on the chopping block are Stations 11, 12, 14 and one of the marine units. They were chosen based upon the least impact, because there are stations that could assist from the outside and only add maybe a minute to service response.
If stations do close, no one would lose a job. Firefighters would go to other stations. But as part of the cuts, the department would have to eliminate 33 positions.
Senterfitt plans to ask the council to look at the revenue numbers again and try to finance the trucks for eight years instead of five, because trucks last 10 years, and to borrow money.
"If I can manage my revenue line tightly, that will free up several million dollars, that will allow me to finance these fire engines, and I can make my own debt payments," Senterfitt said.
The finance committee has made $50 million in cuts from the budget in the last week, with some sweeping effects.
Several council members are against the across-the-board budget cuts, which would affect every department in the city.
"I just want it on the record that we are making a big mistake," Councilwoman Kimberly Daniels said.
She is one of several council members who don't agree with the cuts to make ends meet.
"My concern is the City Council, we don't have the money right now to do simple administrative stuff. This could affect us even having aids," Daniels said.
Others are standing by their pledge to not use any borrowed money to pay for the city's operational costs.
"Now you have two choices: You can either be disciplined and do the right thing for the city financially and fiscally, or you can continue the trend that already got us to where we are," Councilman Bill Gulliford said.
A 2.45 percent across-the-board budget cut for every city department is going to result in some people losing their jobs with the city, but the full impact is unknown.
The council has a lot to talk Tuesday night, including cuts to the Supervisor of Elections Office, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, parks and recreation, and social services.
A public hearing will be held and council members will have a tentative vote on the effects of the cuts.