Firehouse cuts to play key role in mayoral race

On Tuesday, Columbia mayoral candidate Steve Benjamin stood in front of television cameras across the street from the Devine Street fire station to call on City Council members to restore the department's budget cuts.

Less than an hour later, City Councilman Kirkman Finlay, who is also running for mayor, e-mailed to reporters a five-step plan for improving fire service protection.

Both moves were for the same reason: courting the endorsement of the Columbia Firefighters Association, a small but vocal group of the city's 2,200 employees that is helping to set the agenda at City Hall and on the campaign trail.

Three years ago, the association had about 140 members, according to president Mike Cosola. Now, after City Council members reduced staffing at some fire stations, cut firefighters' holiday pay in half and reduced health insurance benefits, it has more than 300 members.

"City elections anyway have a very low turnout and the bottom line is (that) every politician, I don't care who she or he is, wants a firefighter's face behind them," Cosola said. "When we find a candidate who is truly behind public safety, they will get our endorsement. That will mean money, door to door; I don't care if I have to rent 10 vans and drive people to the polling station. We will fully support that individual."

So far, the association has had private meetings with Finlay and Benjamin and is reaching out to other candidates.

City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann benefited from that endorsement during his 2008 re-election campaign, which he narrowly won over challenger Cameron Runyan. On Election Day, a firefighter was at every polling station wearing a yellow T-shirt supporting Rickenmann.

"You want to seek their support," Rickenmann said. "They are a very intricate part (of the city), very organized, and they care."

The firefighter association first flexed its muscle in the spring, when City Council members voted to start charging retired workers for their health insurance premiums. More than 100 firefighters packed City Hall for multiple meetings to protest the changes, which were later adopted.

But recently, the firefighters association has rallied against the staffing cuts at station eight on Atlas Road and station nine on Devine Street.

Last month, the association presented City Council members with a study showing that the city's response times have not met national standards since the staffing cuts at the two fire stations.

Tuesday, Benjamin latched onto that idea and held a news conference in which he called the cuts "unacceptable."

"We ask these men and women to protect our homes, our lives and the lives of our families," Benjamin said. "We can't ask them to do that with one hand tied behind their backs. I'm not going to wait for some disaster to teach us that lesson."

The fire department, like every other city department, had to drastically reduce its budget to make up for the city's poor planning regarding the increasing costs of employee health care.

The fire department had to cut its budget by $1.2 million mid-year, and Chief Bradley Anderson and his staff recommended the staffing cuts at stations eight and nine because those stations already had two trucks and could operate with less resources.

When questioned Tuesday, Benjamin did not say what he would have cut from the department's budget - instead saying the city should have prioritized better to avoid the cuts in the first place.

"When dealing with the leaner times, that's when it's even more important to understand your mission," he said. "I think there are just some things you can't cut."

Finlay admits that his wooing of the firefighters association will be difficult, given that he approved the cuts the firefighters are so angry about.

But Finlay didn't back down from his earlier stance, saying the cuts to the fire department were tough but necessary. His five-point plan calls for restoring the two fire engines by November 2012.

"The problem is when you are on the verge of fiscal bankruptcy, you've got to make tough decisions," Finlay said. "Once we've got our fiscal feet firmly established under us, we're going to have to begin spending money on the priorities.

"We've got to make sure we have that money first."