GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Gulfport's mayor and its fire chief spent part of Thursday discussing rather innovative ways to trim the fire department's budget. The city's financial crisis has backed them into a corner. Somehow, they must save the department's 171 jobs, rebuild the east Gulfport fire station, and cut costs, all at the same time.
As we heard Wednesday night, neighbors selfishly admitted they didn't want Gulfport's Cowan Road fire station to close. Neither did the fire chief, nor the city council. They voted to keep station seven in ward five. "We think that's the best location for fire protection in that area," Fire Chief Pat Sullivan said.
So what happens next?
The first thing Gulfport must do is get a deal in writing with Michael Long. He owns a lot at the corner of Cowan Road and Georgia Place, about 200 feet to the north of station seven. And he's told councilman Ricky Dombrowski he's willing to swap properties. "The other site is a little higher. And the building is going to be constructed higher, and stronger for future storms," said Dombrowski.
Storm scars are still evident within station seven's shell. Its firefighters continue to live in a trailer. For their comfort, and for the city's safety, Dombrowski says it's time to rebuild. "They're just as tired of it as the citizens are of seeing a building that's half way torn down," he said.
The station seven issue comes at a time when the city is battling a financial fire storm. Because of a projected deficit of as much as seven million dollars, budgets are being trimmed. And layoffs in every city department are being considered.
According to Chief Sullivan. "We're going to change some things, the way we do things, that's going to help us not go to layoffs."
Last week, Mayor Schloegel proposed one way to prevent as many as 21 fire department layoffs. His plan relocated station seven to the city's VA property. Gulfport could then sell the Cowan Road property, and use those proceeds to cover fire department salaries.
However Wednesday night, councilwoman Ella Holmes Hines said she believed it was possible to rebuild station seven on Cowan Road without eliminating fire department positions. Her colleagues agreed. They blocked the relocation plan. "We're a team and we're trying to make good decisions," the mayor said afterward.
Schloegel and Sullivan got to work Thursday morning on a new budget cutting scenario, one that came up with creative ways to squeeze 10% from the fire department's operating costs. "The last thing we're going to try to do is make cuts in personnel," the chief said.
A night earlier, the mayor expressed optimism that the fire department issue would be resolved in a way that bolstered the city. "I always think good people will come up with good solutions," Schloegel said. "And I'm committed to work on that."