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City budget cuts: Debate rages on whether to abandon fire station

City budget cuts: Debate rages on whether to abandon fire station

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Mayor Chris Beutler has proposed around $2.2 million in specific cuts as part of his budget proposal to the City Council.

The city's operational budget, even with these specific cuts, will actually grow by 2.6 percent to $143.9 million.

The increase reflects a small growth -- less than 2 percent -- in worker wages, increasing costs of supplies and using city general fund dollars rather than city street funds for the $2.7 million in snow removal costs.

The proposed cuts are part of Beutler's plan to balance the 2011-12 budget, which has a gap of about $9.3 million between expected revenue and the cost of operating city government.

Beutler proposes closing that gap with the cuts in services, a property tax increase, a hike in some fines and fees, and requiring Lincoln Electric System to take over the cost of city street lights.

The council will make changes to the proposed budget July 25 with a public hearing scheduled for Aug. 8. Ultimately, the council must approve the final budget.

Today, the Journal Star looks more closely at the mayor's proposed cuts to alleviate the budget gap.


Smoke and flames poured out of the neon sign atop Slicks Bar and Grill on Monday.

The blaze destroyed the sign and charred the shingles, but firefighters saved the building at 2805 N.W. 48th St.

No one knows what would have happened if crews had shown up, say, eight minutes later. That's because Lincoln Fire and Rescue Engine 11 was there in four.

But if Mayor Chris Beutler's proposed budget is approved in August, Station 11 in northwest Lincoln would close, and the nearest LFR truck to Slicks would be miles and precious minutes away.

The neon light at that bar, one Station 11 firefighter said, "was a sign" in more than ways than one.


Public Safety Director Tom Casady calls Station 11 the Maytag repairman of LFR. Firefighters there respond to about one-fourth as many calls as the average station.

But Capt. Jeff Hatcher's crew doesn't spend its days playing backgammon. Hatcher serves as the department's public education coordinator and helps provide smoke alarms to deaf people. His station also handles media reports and staffing assignments for the entire city.

The outpost tucked deep within Air Park serves 7,000 people cut off from the rest of Lincoln by the sprawling airport complex and Interstate 80. Station 11's call load is comparatively small, but assigning the area to Station 13 or 14 would push travel times to up to 10 minutes.

In a fire or medical emergency, seconds are important. LFR aims to arrive at 90 percent of its calls within eight minutes. Closing Station 11 would make for an almost 100 percent failure rate on that goal in Air Park.

Residents say that's not fair, and the firefighter union president, Dave Engler, says closing the station would be like playing Russian roulette with people's lives.

City Councilman Carl Eskridge, who represents Air Park, argues the area's peculiar geography and the dearth of nearby stations justify keeping the firehouse open.

Casady disagrees.

He said the closure, while difficult, is necessary as the city looks to make up a $9.3 million gap in its operating budget for next year.

The city would save about $450,000 by closing the station and eliminating its 12 firefighter positions. The savings would be higher, but the city would be penalized more than $400,000 by the federal government for laying off firefighters after accepting a grant to pay for additional staff.

Beutler's chief of staff Rick Hoppe said closing Station 11 now would be the first step in rearranging the city's fire stations. With savings from the closure, Hoppe said the city could begin construction on new stations in northwest and southeast Lincoln in coming years. The first, he said, would be in the northwest.

After a period to suggest changes and hear from the public, the City Council will approve a budget Aug. 22.


Four years ago, Becky Ives' stepson choked on a penny.

Firefighters were there within minutes and dislodged the coin. The 4-year-old was OK.

Ives, who lives in the area served by Station 11, said having efficient emergency service is important with young children living with her and an elderly mother-in-law nearby.

"It's concerning," she said, about the fire station possibly closing. "We're talking doubling, at least, the response time."

Few think the 31-year-old station inside the airport gates is a great spot for Station 11. It was built when LFR was the first responder for the airport, but the Air National Guard took over primary response duties there years ago.

The City Council approved a new building for Station 11 five years ago, but plans were scrapped after the council learned the Airport Authority wasn't evicting the station.

Now, Arnold Heights Neighborhood President Karen Griffin Sieber worries what will happen to people with medical emergency or fires, and she questions what the proposed closure says about the city's priorities.

"Why are we less important out here?" she asked. "Why should our response time be twice as long as other people in town?"

Councilman Eskridge is a former volunteer firefighter in Palmyra. In a fire, he said quick response is key to limiting damage.

"Even worse is a medical situation," he said. "If you've got a person with a cardiac issue or choking where seconds are precious, it can be a difference between life and death."

Hoppe said the station's low call volume makes closing it sensible. It would be great to have 25 stations, he said, but that's not realistic.

"I think it's a little overstated to say with 332 calls, of which only a small minority were emergencies, that people's lives are in danger," Hoppe said. 

Interim Fire Chief John Huff said his department will continue to provide quality service to Air Park, although residents say eight- to 10-minute response times won't cut it.

"It's just part of the painful budget process we're going through," Huff said. "Certainly we are concerned about it, but we're pitching in and helping as best we can."


In a citywide online budget survey earlier this year, 58 percent of the 2,700 respondents said the city should continue to fund a lightly used fire station. Only pools and libraries received more citizen support. The survey didn't specify which fire station would close.

At-large City Councilman Adam Hornung wants to use $500,000 the city plans to deposit into a rainy day fund to support the station for another year. He said getting rid of it essentially punishes Lincoln taxpayers for things beyond their control.

"It is not their fault that the city kind of grew in a weird way and that we have Air Park inside our city limits," he said.

Hoppe said not closing Station 11 this year would make it harder to open new stations in coming years. Further, he said, Lincoln's financial responsibility to the federal government would double if firefighters are cut next year.

But Hornung worries Air Park would be less attractive to developers or home buyers without nearby emergency services.

"I don't know how people would feel safe in that kind of situation," he said.


Firefighter Amber Wade, a five-year LFR veteran, has been at Station 11 since last year. Her job isn't at risk -- the department's 12 least senior firefighters would be laid off if the budget passes and the positions can't be eliminated through attrition -- but she worries about the increased response times.

"The (call) numbers don't matter to us," she said. "It's the service we provide."

Casady said deep cuts were hard in every department.

The nature center in Pioneers Park would close in winter, police would stop providing some non-emergency services and library hours would be slashed if the City Council approves the mayor's proposal.

"But we tried to do it by prioritizing the things at the top that make the greatest contribution to our mission," Casady said. "On the fire side, it really does come down to the numbers."

But Hatcher, the Station 11 captain, said it comes down to equity and safety. Still, he said firefighters will do their best to serve Air Park whether the station closes or not.

"We believe the people who live out here deserve just as good of service."

Reach Mitch Smith at 402-473-2655 or


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