Read Gulfport Mayor Schloegel's letter on restructuring the city's fire department

July 21, 2009

From the office of Mayor George Schloegel

Dear citizens,

In what our administration believes is a workable and practical step toward solving our budget issues and staving off the loss of jobs, we presented an alternative plan to the City Council last night to restructure the Gulfport Fire Department.

This is a difficult time for our city, and every city across this nation.

We are living through one of the greatest economic challenges of our lifetime, and what is needed now is productive and civil discourse on the part of every member of the City Council and every department director.

The challenge before us is to put an end to wasteful spending and to make every aspect of city government more efficient, while protecting Gulfport against future budget shortfalls and not placing the burden on its taxpaying citizens.

Many months ago, each department head was asked to cut 10 percent of their operating budget for fiscal year 2010. The department directors have courageously met this daunting task and scaled back spending to help bolster the city's financial future and strengthen the solvency of this government.

However, for Chief Pat Sullivan and the Gulfport Fire Department to reach the required 10 percent budget reduction, the department would need to cut as many as 21 employees.

The idea of such resolution being our only way out of this crisis is sobering and deeply disturbing.

So last night, we put forth an alternative to layoffs in the fire department and we are hopeful the City Council will select this path over the one that ends with the loss of 21 department employees.

The plan, which was created with the help of Chief Sullivan and his staff, is to relocate Station No. 7, which is currently on the corner of Cowan Road and the beach. That piece of highly valuable real estate can then be sold as surplus, adding money back into the department's budget.

Station No. 7 will then be relocated to a new firehouse built with federal funds on the Veterans Affairs site; 92 acres of city-owned property.

In addition to cutting costs, relocating the firehouse would provide a constant presence and added security-around the clock-on the VA site.

This measure will allow us to avoid the layoffs that we currently face, and instead, Gulfport could save as much as $450,000 next year and far more in the next five years.

For the most part, that savings would reduce the number of positions that will need to be cut to just three. We will use the money from the property sale to cover those positions in the meantime, allowing the department to drop them through attrition, retirement and other job opportunities.

What will such a move do to the emergency response times in those areas? If you closely study the map of fire department response rings you will notice the rings and the current locations of our fire stations overlap significantly in the southern part of our city.

This overlap is what will allow us to relocate the firehouse to the VA without affecting the response time in any neighborhood in Gulfport.

The rapid response time will still be there. The high efficiency and performance rate of the Gulfport Fire Department will not be impacted in the least.

But this alternative solution to layoffs will not be available forever. If we are to use federal funds to build the new firehouse at the VA, we must confront the urgency of this crisis and act swiftly to resolve it. If we do not have a construction plan in place before the end of August, we will lose the federal funding.

Secondly, today my office will create an advisory commission to study the operations of the Gulfport Fire and Medical Response Department. The panel of ordinary citizens will present recommendations to my administration, the public and the Gulfport City Council on ways to implement long-term practices that will ensure Gulfport maintains a world-class fire department.

The panel will review other departments and compare the methods being used by our department to those in other cities to come up with solid, workable solutions that will benefit the Gulfport Fire Department for many years to come.

In the past year, the city has earned a fire rating of 4, and is closing in on 3, which is even better and will help lessen the cost of insurance for every property owner in the city. Only one other city in Mississippi has a better fire rating than Gulfport.

Gulfport is in a period of great renaissance and when we come out of this crisis and prosperity returns to America, we will be better for having lived through these trying times.

In addition, you should know that while Chief Sullivan, the City Council and this administration have and will debate our budget ideas vigorously, we have already come together with a sense of common purpose; all wanting the same basic thing for our city: To rebuild Gulfport into one of the nation's most vibrant, prosperous and thriving communities.

We already live in a good city, but with your help, all of us working together, we will make it great.

George Schloegel