Years ago Mayor LaGuardia was asked if he felt responsible when something bad happened in his city to which he responded "if a pigeon dies in Central Park I feel responsible." I cannot tell you how real that feeling is for me today as the mayor of your city. Actually, it's not pigeons I'm worried about; I am worried about the safety of our community. With that in mind I feel it would be irresponsible if I did not share my concerns with you regarding the Finance Committee's 2010 operating budget.
The 2010 budget was introduced by Common Council on May 18th in a 5 to 2 vote (with Councilmen Steve Murphy and Mike Vernotico voting "no" on the budget and "yes" for public safety). While I understand council's goal of holding the line on property taxes by attempting to bring in a municipal budget that attempts to not exceed 2%, I question the logic of making the deepest cuts to our first responders, putting them at risk as well as our community.
The Finance Committee of Common Council, comprised of Councilmen Rich Madden, chairman; Tom Getzendanner, member; and Dave Bomgaars, Council President, decided that regardless of the fact that Governor Christie summarily cut $721,000 in municipal aid to Summit, they were still going to hold the line, regardless of the impact on our city.
Here are my concerns: For a total savings of $171,000, or $24 per average household, our elected officials have made the following cuts to our police and fire departments: The reduction of two police officers along with a major reduction in their overtime budget. The implementation of a 6+-year cycle on replacing police vehicles up from the current 3-year cycle, which has proven to be effective in terms of both safety and operating costs. A significant reduction in overtime for the fire department - lower than the actual overtime expended on fire fighting duties over the past 5 years.
The reality is that if the proposed overtime allocation for police and fire stands, there simply will be fewer police officers on the street and fewer firefighters at fire scenes. Overtime makes it possible to hold the line on full-time positions, yet still be at the ready to respond to real emergencies. Simply put, it is the price we pay to have very lean fire and police departments.
Imagine this: As proposed by Council, the over time allocation for the fire department could mean that on at least 61 shifts a crew of 4, or as few as 3 firefighters would be all that are available to respond to a fire. State law mandates that five firemen must be present before the structure can be entered. This means that Summit would have to wait for back-up from a neighboring town. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I fear that if this situation occurs, our brave men would likely not wait for back-up, but would put themselves in harm's way to save our lives and property.
As a community we owe it to our uniform services - the men and women who keep us safe - to give them the tools necessary to mitigate their risk; and we also have the sworn responsibility to keep all of our residents, visitors , businesses, houses of worship and nonprofits safe.
As mayor, I have a unique perspective on the challenges facing our police and fire departments. I greatly respect the fact that the PBA, as well as the FMBA, took the unusual step of reopening their contracts and making significant concessions before the expiration of their current contracts. In fact, a benchmark study of 11 similar communities documents the fact that Summit's per capita costs for police and fire services are below the average for these towns.
These real facts seem to make little difference to the Finance Committee, who are holding fast to an arbitrary 2+% increase with no basis in reality for what the actual costs are to protect our community. Quite frankly, I find it hard to believe that most of Summit's residents would not be willing to spend an additional $24 to have the essential health and safety needs of the community covered.
If this budget passes with two less officers and with unrealistic allocations for police and fire overtime, we are surely going to see overtime numbers like never before experienced in the city - how can we not? This budget is flawed, because it is not an actual picture of what will happen in the course of the year, or what it will actually be costing all of us.
I have often said that elected officials have three major responsibilities: to insure the safety and protection of our community; to insure the quality of our infrastructure; and to insure the excellence of our public schools. Quite frankly, if this council decides in favor of the budget as introduced by Councilmen Madden and Getzendanner under the leadership of Council President Dave Bomgaars, I believe they have abrogated their responsibilities to each and every one of us.
Now, I realize my words may sound harsh - even unfair to some - but, I cannot sit by and watch this community, which we all love and have worked so hard to build, be torn apart because of some arbitrary number picked at will regardless of the real costs to our community.
Long before I became your mayor, good schools, a sound infrastructure and strong uniform services were the hallmark of Summit. While I may not have a vote, I will not sit silent when the health and safety of our community is at risk, not on my watch!
If you feel as I do, please contact your councilpersons (to email: go to www.cityofsummit.org; scroll down to Common Council; email each member, or Mayor and Council) , or better yet, please speak out at our June 1st council meeting so council has time to make the necessary changes before the June 15th budget vote.
It is often said that we get the government we deserve; with your support, I am confident that we will. I look forward to hearing from you.
Jordan Glatt is the Mayor of Summit, New Jersey