WESTFIELD, NJ - Alarmed that Westfield’s firefighting force has dwindled in recent years by nearly 25 percent? Greg Kasko certainly feels that way. The controversial political blogger, former Westfield police officer and one-time independent candidate for town council has repeatedly voiced his concerns regarding Westfield’s fire department’s depleted staffing at town council meetings.
“I do believe that our fire department is not staffed properly, the way it used to be 10 years ago,” said Kasko. He agrees with the town council that, in hard economic times, cutting back on the town’s staffing may be necessary.
“That’s okay when you have non-emergency help,” Kasko said. But he worries when the police and firefighting forces are diminished. “I know that our town council is doing the best they can with the financial stress our town is facing. But you cannot state that our town is doing more with less when we’re doing less with less as far as public safety is concerned.”
Councilwoman Jo Ann Neylan, who chairs the Public Safety, Traffic and Parking Committee, insists that the safety of Westfield residents is not being compromised. “I am comfortable when I am assured by Chief Kelly and all the fire professionals that we meet safety standards,” said Neylan.
That isn’t enough for James Ryan, a lieutenant in the Westfield Fire Department and vice president of Westfield’s firemen’s union. “I guess they’re going by what the fire chief says. He’s been quoted as saying we have plenty of manpower, but he’s going to say what his bosses want him to say,” said Ryan. “They don’t want to spend the money on the fire department.”
Kasko believes the town is not doing enough to seek out additional funding. At public meetings, he has repeatedly asked the town council why Westfield has not applied for a Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grant offered by FEMA that could help pay additional firefighters’ salaries.
Mayor Andy Skibitsky and Town Administrator Jim Gildea were not available for comment. “I am confident that Chief Kelly, Jim Gildea, the people who run our town—I’m confident that they’re pursing everything they can pursue,” said Neylan.
Despite budget cuts that leave positions unfilled and broken equipment unfixed or un-replaced, Neylan still calls Westfield a model town that is “run very well.” “Many towns have only volunteer firefighters, but Westfield is fortunate to still have a paid fire department,” she pointed out. “We have tough choices, but we’re thankful that we’re able to maintain the fire department and we’re happy with the level of dedication that they give the town.”
To Ryan, statements like this one sting. “We just feel like politicians just pay us lip service. They say they support us 100 percent, but if you look at how they’re funding us, that just isn’t true,” said Ryan.
Neylan insists the issue is just as important to her as it is to any other Westfield resident. “I live in Westfield and I have three children,” she said. “I want a safe town as much as anyone does.”
Read our initial story about the Westfield Fire Department's budget woes here.