Cuts to Wilmington fire dept. clear committee

By Tom Lehman 12:42am, July 8, 2014 - Updated 10:33am, July 8, 2014
VIDEO: Wilmington Fire Chief Anthony Goode discusses Monday's joint finance and public safety committee meeting.
Administration officials clashed with Wilmington council members during a joint committee meeting on Monday over a pair of bills aimed at reducing government spending.

WDEL's Tom Lehman reports.

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The measures, which include the elimination of seven vacant firefighting positions to save $447,000, are part of a package of bills that sponsors said will increase transparency and cut wasteful expenditures.

The proposals have drawn opposition and criticism from members of Mayor Dennis Williams' administration, culminating in staffers walking out on the joint meeting of the finance and public safety committees.

Cleon Cauley, the mayor's chief of staff, removed himself and asked his staff to leave the council chamber after the fire and police chiefs were not allowed to speak on a bill requiring quarterly updates on their departments' strength. Dozens of firefighters in attendance also left, criticizing council members on the way out.

"The administration remains willing to have an open dialogue with city council and there is a proper manner and forum in which this dialogue can take place," Cauley said in a statement.

Mike Brown, a Republican and chairman of the public safety committee, said he intended for Fire Chief Anthony Goode to be able to comment on the bill after it cleared the committee.

Goode opposes the measure and proposed cuts to the fire department.

"My intention was to have everything in front of me to say 'Chief, you heard everything that was said. Can you and would you like to elaborate on it?'" Brown said.

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Goode called Brown's actions "disrespectful" and alleged his behavior was based on personal dislike.

"Why should we sit there and be beat upon or not be allowed to speak and be disrespected?" he said. "That's just completely wrong."

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Much of the crowd gathered at the meeting left before committee members cleared a bill cutting seven firefighting positions that have become vacant after retirements within the department.

Brown said the legislation might not be voted on at Thursday's council meeting and announced the measure could be expanded to nine vacant positions, after recent comments from Goode.

The chief said the department may need to begin shutting down a fire company on a rotating basis, a process similar to "rolling bypasses" under the Baker administration, that has only occurred recently when overtime costs accumulated among firefighters.

However, Goode said that practice would cause even more overtime expenditures for the department because additional personnel might be needed if coverage gaps occur.

"Now it's going to cost us even more money because we're going to be in a situation where we're forced to call people back into work, and when you're calling individuals back into work it's at a heftier pay scale," he said.

Councilman Bob Williams (D-District 7) opposes the cuts and said the reductions would force the city to rely more heavily on support from New Castle County's volunteer fire departments.

"I think that's an undue burden on the citizens of New Castle County for us to occupy their volunteer fire system in our city because we're trying to save a dime," Williams said.

Although she expressed concerns about communication over the bill, Councilwoman Maria Cabrera (D-At Large) said she was frustrated that the reductions were occurring after council members unsuccessfully lobbied the Williams administration to make $2 million in the budget.

"They should have done their job, they should have done more because we as council trying to do our judiciary job, we're the bad guys," Cabrera said.

Council President Theo Gregory (D) said the vote, which could come this week, would challenge council members who talked about reducing the size of government to resist political pressures.

"As they say, the rubber has hit the road." Gregory said. "Now we're gonna see what people are made out of."

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