The Chief
April 25, 2003

‘Doomsday’ for Public Safety

By Mark Daly

Police and fire union leaders reacted with dismay April 15 after Mayor Bloomberg outlined a doomsday plan of budget cuts that would shrink the Police Department to 1991 levels and threaten the closing of 40 firehouses.

The Mayor’s proposal to cancel a July police class and allow the NYPD’s unprecedented attrition to continue is “sheer lunacy,” said Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch.

‘A Sinking Ship’

Uniformed Firefighters’ Association President Stephen J. Cassidy said cutting the Fire Department’s $1.1 billion budget by another $47 million would leave the agency “a completely sinking ship.”

Mr. Bloomberg said his contingency plan of $1 billion in budget cuts will become a reality if state lawmakers balk at granting the city a commuter tax. His executive budget proposal for the 2003-04 fiscal year slices $600 million from city agencies and requires layoffs in the Sanitation and Correction Departments.

While they have been spared layoffs, the PBA and UFA leaders said their agencies would be hard-hit by attrition and other cutbacks.

The NYPD is already losing 235 members a month – “about what it takes to staff a precinct,” Mr. Lynch said.

Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly acknowledged that if he can’t send 1,300 recruits to the Police Academy this summer, his department will likely drop to 32,000 officers by June 2004.

The NYPD was last at that level in 1991, when the city recorded nearly 2,300 homicides. Early that year, City Council Speaker Peter F. Vallone Sr. and Mayor David N. Dinkins persuaded the state to approve an income tax surcharge to pay for the “Safe Streets/Safe City” hiring plan that eventually boosted the department to 40,000 officers. An accelerating of attrition rate in the last three years has reduced the department to its present level of about 36,000.

The doomsday budget would compromise the city’s ability to fight crime, said City Council Member Peter F. Vallone Jr. the former Speaker’s son.

“Those are Albany’s cuts,” said Mr. Vallone, who repeated his call for the city to secede from the state. “If this is the way they treat us, I can’t think of one reason we need them.”

The Mayor’s worst-case scenario of 10,400 city workers layoffs will add to the impact of the attrition at the NYPD, predicted Lieutenants’ Benevolent Association President Tony Garvey.

“You can’t cut services, and in addition to that put people out of work, without it having an effect,” he said. “There is a direct connection between unemployment and the crime rate.”

The firefighters’ union is still fighting cuts in this year’s budget, including the closing of eight companies and a reduction in staffing at engine companies.

The city has informed the union that it will remove the fifth firefighter from 53 engine companies on May 2, said Mr. Cassidy. The move will leave nearly all of the city’s 319 engine companies with four firefighters.

Firefighter Vacancies

The FDNY is operating with 700 firefighter vacancies, and the effort to plug the holes in each shift has driven overtime spending upward. The department expects to hire 250 firefighters next month, but it will also be redistributing the closed companies’ crews to fill other vacancies.

The $47 million cut to the FDNY in the Mayor’s contingency plan is listed as a further reduction in overtime spending. The amount is equal to the annual operation cost of 40 fire companies.

City officials suggested it would be easier for the department to simply close that many fire stations than to attempt half-measures, such as closing firehouses at night, which present greater logistical challenges.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said there are “no plans as yet” to close dozens of firehouses, since FDNY officials are still analyzing proposals for cuts. “I’m not prepared to talk about the contingency plan and what we would do, but it would be devastating to the department,” he said.

To Mr. Cassidy, the proposed cut was so severe it seemed unreal. “It’s an attempt to put pressure on the Governor and Albany,” he said.

The UFA is still seeking to avert the disbanding of the eight fire companies targeted in the current budget. Due to community notification requirements, the earliest the companies could be closed is May 23.

“Just because the Mayor’s said it’s a done deal doesn’t make it so,” said Mr. Cassidy, who pointed out that City Council Members in affected neighborhoods are strongly opposed to the closings.

One Council Member, James E. Davis, announced he will be leading a protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge on April 27 to protest the closing of Engine Co. 209 in his Brooklyn neighborhood.