Colorado Springs Fire Department plans to shift nearly $1 million of its funds to remain within its allocated budget for the year, its chief announced Friday.
To balance the budget, several staff personnel, including the public information officer, medical lieutenant, training division captain and captain of emergency management, will leave their office duties and return to firetrucks, said Fire Chief Ted Collas.
News of the budget shortfall, largely caused by overtime expenditures, was communicated to Collas last Wednesday. In response, several changes within the department were made, including the decision to shut down Squad 11, a life support paramedic unit operating in southeastern Colorado Springs.
“Our funding has not changed or been reduced in any manner since the beginning of the year. I simply did not stay apprised of our expenditures as I should have and our projections came in later than I anticipated,” Collas said.
“I should have recognized the issue earlier, which would have enabled us to avoid such drastic measures at the end of the year,” he said.
After meeting with Mayor John Suthers on Friday, Collas said the squad was reinstated and will be up and running by Saturday. His “difficult but necessary” decision to reassign staff members, however, remains.
Collas said the changes won’t affect residents but will place an additional workload on the department’s staff.
The shifts are a step backward for an underfunded department, said Dave Noblitt, president of the Professional Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 5.
And they’ll only exacerbate the problems outlined during the union’s failed bid in April to seek collective bargaining privileges for firefighters, he said.
During that election, Noblitt and others told voters the city’s firefighters are overworked and understaffed and lacked the equipment they need to keep the city safe.
“This sounds like sour grapes, but all of those things that we said … those were all true,” Noblitt said. “We truly don’t have the resources necessary for the size of the city that we have, that’s growing exponentially.”
Already areas in town are at risk, he said.
“There’s no way we can effectively get a firefighting force to (portions of the northeastern side),” he said. Noblitt was pleased that to hear that the life support unit in southeastern Colorado Springs was reinstated after Collas met with Suthers.
“But we’re kind of dismayed at the fact that it took them a week and a half to work it out,” he said. “They at least got the most important part back in place. Not sure what the rest of the budget looks like.”
The austerity measures hit the department nearly two years after voters approved a set of controversial stormwater fees in November 2017, freeing general fund money for the Fire Department and other city agencies.
A year ago this week, during his annual State of the City address, Mayor Suthers promised that the money freed by the stormwater fees would allow the city to hire 32 firefighters over the next four years.
Indeed, the department used that money to hire 17 firefighters over two years. Collas said the hiring trend will continue as promised.
Despite challenges this year, Collas and Noblitt said the new hires will only benefit the department.
“Any addition is a positive,” Noblitt said. “We do need the people.”
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