Firestation plans won't help city's budget - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Gulfport firestation # 7 won't be moving

By Elise Roberts - bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - How to save and spend money was the hot topic at a workshop in Gulfport Wednesday.

The city of Gulfport received the results of its annual audit and according to the report, Gulfport gets an overall clean opinion.

Auditors from Wright, Ward, Hatten & Guel went over the report in detail.

The company outlined the city's general fund and its water and sewer fund which are its biggest operating costs.

Even though the city received a good rating, auditors did recommend some improvements like submitting monthly budget reports to the city council and doing a better job of publicizing budget amendments over ten percent in order to meet state codes.

While the city's annual audit got a passing grade, the city of Gulfport is failing when it comes to expenditures.

"We are spending more than we are making," said Mayor George Schloegel.

Mayor Schloegel says Gulfport is facing a $7 million deficit and he's calling on the city's department directors to help.

"I came in, running for office because of all the good things but the first thing I got to deal with is the budgeting process and say cut them off, cut them off, cut them off. That's not pleasant at all," said Schloegel.

The mayor asked all departments to cut their budget by ten percent. While some of the departments have already made the cuts, the fire department says the only way to cut ten percent of its budget, is by eliminating 21 positions.

However, the mayor and his administration say cutting firefighters is the last resort. So they worked with the department to come up with what they thought would be a better plan.

Mayor Schloegel suggested closing fire station four AND relocating fire station seven to the city-owned VA property. The plan would have allowed the fire department to meet the ten percent budget cut. It would have also allowed the city to make money by selling the Cowan Road property, once the fire station was demolished.

Residents didn't like that idea.

"I may be the most hated person in this city today, but I don't care. This is my money," said Lorraine Santo.

Resident Lorraine Santo said she would like to see city employees cut work hours and decline pay raises.

Others said while station four is not in the best condition, they want it to remain in the community.

As for moving station seven on Cowan Road, Councilman Ricky Dombrowski said it will only hurt response times in his ward.

"Yes mayor, I'm fighting for my station. We need that station," said Dombrowski. "And I know if we move it, I will never get it back."

Ty Windham from the fire bureau said the mayors idea could hurt the city's fire rating. Windham says moving station seven and shutting down station four could mean slower response times and higher insurance.

Councilman Ricky Dombrowski invited Windham to the meeting to help decide what would be best for the city. After hearing his recommendations and concerns from residents, the council decided not to close station four or relocate station seven.

Instead, fire station seven on Cowan Road will be rebuilt with funds from FEMA money. But that still leaves the department without a plan to cut ten percent from its budget.

"I agree with the mayor 100 percent that we need to make some changes. We know things are going to be tough and we know that we may have to do some layoffs," said Chief Pat Sullivan. "We understand that and we are preparing to respond to the issue if we have to and not reduce protection."

Councilwoman Ella-Holmes Hines told the mayor she's looked over the budget and she thinks there are other positions that can be eliminated.

"We have positions that weren't here two or three years ago that can be cut," said Hines. "I've gone through this budget and marked all of them."

It's clear the council and mayor have a solid relationship and are working together without any hostility.

"Be clear, this is not the mayor against Dombrowski or the mayor against the council," said Mayor Schloegel told the audience. Clapping and head nods seemed to confirm the mayor's statement. "We are working together so that we have options to do what's best for the city."

The mayor said his administration will continue to work with the fire department to come up with alternate plans. Ultimately, it will be up to the council to make the final decision on job cuts.

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