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Firefighters/Supporters Rally at Gloucester City Council Meeting

By Sara Martino

NEWS Correspondent

Motorists honked their horns as they drove by the Gloucester City Community Center May 27 in approval of the many signs held by people asking to save the jobs of City firefighters that are scheduled for layoffs.

Outside the building, crowds waited to go into the City Council meeting, which was rescheduled to the hall in anticipation of a huge crowd.

Because of fire regulations, only 200 people could be inside the hall. As one or two people would exit, the “doorman” would allow a few to enter.

After some deliberation, the walls that were separating the meeting from the Senior Citizen Center were finally opened, and the hall quickly filled up.

During the public hearing of the 2010 municipal budget, Mayor William James and Council members heard the people’s voices.

They wanted to know why the firefighters, and other City employees, are losing their positions.

“Sell the Chatham Square Apartments. Get the money from the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) that is owed to Gloucester for firefighter services. Get rid of the schooner. Can’t money be saved by some cuts in the Celebrations Committee festivities?”

These were just some of the suggestions made, with residents hoping the cost savings would be able to cover the salaries of those slated for layoffs.

Former mayor Bob Bevan said he has been on both sides of the fence.

“It’s not good times now, folks. There may not be any hope for this year. We will have to try to prevent problems in the future years,” he said.

Protesters in the audience did not respond favorably to his comments.

Residents said: “We need everyone (the firemen) around here. An undermanned staff cannot cover the entire town. You guys are ruining it. We need a 24-hour ambulance crew. Why did you hire eight new firefighters last year, and why are you laying off some of them this year?”

Mayor James responded, “We would not have hired that many last year if we knew what was going to happen this year. Because of the loss of state aid, we have to make up a $1.2 million reduction that we were counting on.”

The mayor also said that the overtime expenses in the Fire Department were a major item in negotiations.

A resident said, “Don’t blame the governor or Trenton for the situation. You knew years ago that this situation would eventually come to the layoffs.”

The residents begged mayor and council to keep the firemen, and cited many occurrences when the firemen and ambulance personnel saved their lives.

A handicapped woman in a wheelchair said she and her children would not be here today if the firemen did not save her.

In addition to the speech of Jeff Sanderson, president of the Fire Mutual Benevolent association (FMBA) for Firefighters Local#251, many out-of-city fire personnel defended the need for a well-staffed fire department.

They said, “We have a population of 11,500. Most of the older homes are wood frame dwellings. We need quick response to fire calls.”

In a report circulated to City Council from the firefighters, many cost-savings were incurred by the firemen themselves. Several programs, including the use of shift schedules, saved the City over $150,000 annually, it stated.

Maintenance on the fire vehicles done by members with automotive and electrical skills were noted as saving the city $30,000 to date.

The daughter of Mount Ephraim Deputy Chief John West, who lost his life in the July Fourth fire in 2002, begged Mayor and Council to reconsider the layoffs.

Many residents said they would not mind paying additional taxes that may eventually help to save lives.

Mayor James said Council has been trying to negotiate contracts with the fire and police unions for several years.

Councilman John Hutchinson said the City will keep talking to resolve the issue of the contracts.

Councilman Nicholas Marchese said the cuts were made in other departments as well, not just the fire department.

An 8 percent cut was made in the Police Department, 5 percent in the public works, 14 percent in the library, and 4 percent in the building code office, he said.

Most of the audience left after the public hearing on the budget, which Council approved for the total of $16,984,500. Then, the meeting was adjourned for 15 minutes.

A discussion was held on the Gloucester Public Library when meeting resumed.

Resident Theresa Graham said the Camden County Library system could not compare with the City Library.

“We have 32 computers for residents’ use. The library bought those computers with grant money,” she said.

Talks will continue on the Library situation.

The 15 layoffs scheduled for July 1, 2010, include eight in the Fire Department, one in the Police Department, one in Community Development, and five in the Administration Department – four of which are part-time.

City Administrator Jack Lipsett had recently told ClearysNotebook that: “The notices are just part of a process the must be followed. We are still meeting with union representatives trying to avert any layoffs in the Fire and Police departments.”

Bill Cleary also reported that, during the City Council meeting, Volunteer Firefighter Dan Dobleman said that he and some other volunteers would resign their positions if layoff notices giving to the eight firefighters were not rescinded.

City Council was relying on the volunteers to pick up the slack if the layoffs take effect.

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