Longshoremen, laborers and others who work or spend time on the Tideflats told Tacoma’s City Council Tuesday that plans to close the city’s lone fire station in the Port of Tacoma would amount to a death sentence.
“In our industry, the accidents tend to be severe and unusual — and never normal,” Donnie Gill, an officer with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 23, told council members. “… Any reduction in response times is going to cost lives.”
Gill was among nearly 30 people who voiced concerns or offered suggestions to the council Tuesday about City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s 2013-14 general fund budget plan, which proposes across-the-board cuts to city departments amid a fiscal crisis facing Tacoma.
Some of those who spoke Tuesday took issue with recommended slashes to public works and street maintenance. Others suggested a share of $3.8 million in potential new revenues garnered from a proposed $20 per vehicle license tab fee be spent on improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians — not solely for drivers.
Executives of Tacoma’s two health care giants asked the council to scuttle a plan to raise $5.5 million by removing a business tax exemption for nonprofit hospitals.
“The long-standing B&O exemption was created because our elected officials recognized the vital role our local health systems play in our community,” said Diane Cecchettini, president and CEO of MultiCare Health Systems. “We provide millions of dollars worth of medical services each year to the most vulnerable, at-risk individuals in our community – regardless of their ability to pay.”
Several citizens countered by criticizing MultiCare and Franciscan Health Systems for not paying their fair share to the community while reaping huge revenues.
“People are losing their jobs and yet we had two CEOs stand up here tonight and say, `I don’t want to chip in,’” said Joe Cote, a retired nurse and longtime Tacoma resident. “I find that reprehensible.”
But most rose to speak Tuesday about some $11 million in proposed fire cuts, with several people citing concerns for the public’s safety. Troubled port area workers were joined by worried residents from the Proctor District and the Eastside — neighborhoods with stations targeted for cutbacks that would mean losing a fire engine, a firefighter and, in the case of Proctor, overnight services.
Longtime Proctor resident Elizabeth Ragan, a former neighborhood block watch chairwoman, counted herself among the worried. She told city officials she feared lives would be lost due to the cuts facing Station 13.
“I realize you’ve all picked over the bones of this budget,” Ragan added. “…But we hope you will pick over those bones a little bit more and try to find just a few more dollars.”
The city manager and council face an unenviable task: Closing a $63 million budget gap projected for the next two years after the city already made $32 million in cuts to the current budget. The council is expected to vote on a final budget on Dec. 4.
Before the public comment period Tuesday, Broadnax gave a presentation of his budget that explained the grim details of the city’s predicament. He also noted most residents’ city tax dollars are being spent on public safety, with nearly 60 percent of the general fund devoted to police and fire.
“We do support our public safety organizations and we do it with the money that comes through our doors,” he said.
Some citizens showed up to the meeting after receiving leaflets distributed to their homes by the firefighters’ union that warned the proposed cuts would put public safety at risk.
But Broadnax stressed the fliers “may not tell the whole story.” Even with the proposed cutbacks, he said, Tacoma Fire would continue to respond with appropriate emergency vehicles and personnel throughout the city.
Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who earlier this year aided the firefighters’ union in successfully lobbying for a $7.7 million grant that will save 37 jobs, added that concessions by labor unions could help restore some of the proposed cuts.
“We’re going to do our best to pick the marrow, not just the bones,” she said. “But everyone has to pull their own weight.”