I've been doing my best to be supportive of the new administration. I'm trying really hard to keep a positive attitude about the future of W-B while being lambasted and criticized by friend and family alike for opting to stay the course. With less than one year under the toolage of Tom Leighton I've been reluctant to write him off as another self serving W-B democrat. But (there's always a "but" when I write to you) maybe the critics and cynics are on to something with regard to the firehouse closings. You tell me.
There's an uproar brewing here in the Heights, apparently with good reason. Residents are asking for info regarding the relations and discussions of the committee pertaining to the closing of East Station to no avail. The committee that was formed to explore the re-opening of that house has lost it's credibility before it has had a chance to do anything, and with good reason. You see, the folks up here on the hill can't understand why the mayor has instructed the committee to refrain from informing the residents as to the work being done behind closed doors. They can't understand why the meetings are closed to the public and the media (violation of the sunshine laws?). They can't understand why nobody else is allowed to join the committee. And the can't understand why one of the members of that committee doesn't even live in W-B, let alone the Heights.
I was at the City Council meeting the night the committee was formed. And I knew that as soon as Tony Thomas ( a man I respect) proposed the formation of a committee around this subject that this engine house was as good as gone. You know as well as I that the quickest way to kill an issue is to propose a study or form a committee. That's a tried and true tactic of any political body. And borrowing from "The Art of War", the mayor has used another well known tactic to seal the fate of that engine house by granting title and the perception of empowerment to the members of the committee without ceding any real control. And the only dissident voice of the committee was removed from her seat. Now the committee is no longer an opposing body, merely an extension of the administration. Personally, I can't understand why the folks on the committee (some of whom I know quite well) are foolish enough to fall for this ploy.
As a result, even my own wife has become a vocal opposer of the committee and the administration; launching a verbal attack at last night's Council meeting against those bodies and Ch. Lisman. Despite my urgings that the Chief's heart is still pure in regard to the operations of the Fire Department. Puts me in a truly awkward situation. So I'd like to say to any of your readers who are forming the storm yet to come: Lay off Ch. Lisman. He has his marching orders and is expected to carry them out whether he agrees with them or not. That's his job. That's what administrators do. I've worked with and for the man for 17 years which gives me a little more insight to his character than the average Joe in the street. I'll stand by him.
I agree that the closing of East Station is a tragedy for the residents of the Heights. We have the highest population density, the narrowest streets, the highest percentage of elderly, the highest percentage of public and subsidized housing, 4 high rise buildings dedicated to the elderly and disabled, two public schools and the steepest hills in the city. The loss of a City presence in the Heights has already manifested itself in increased drug activity on the corner of E. Northampton and S. Sherman streets, just feet from the now defunked engine house. Four black males can be seen daily selling drugs on that corner on a daily basis. Yes, the police are aware of it. In fact just last week a white Buick four door with a maroon top was parked right in front of my house while one occupant was "shooting up" with the dome light on. I had every intention of "doing" his windshield with my Louisville Slugger but the pulled away before I could get my shoes on. I'm told by the police that they know who the sellers are and are doing the best they can with the resources they have. Meanwhile, all I can do is call 911 repeatedly.
Obviously my concerns are other than fire response times. Again, knowing the capabilities of the apparatus and the skills of the drivers I doubt that response time will be profoundly different except in severe weather conditions or in the event of multiple emergencies. While fire response times are surely compromised under the previous conditions, I'm more concerned with medical aspects of the firehouse closings. And maybe my concerns are more selfish than noble. For example: My father has had multiple by-passes and multiple heart attacks. My best friend's wife has severe blockages of both femoral arteries at the base of the aorta. My neighbor has lost both legs to diabetes and has become grossly obese due to a thyroid condition. Another neighbor has lost a good portion of his intestines to cancer. I could go on but I think you get my point. And with the loss of two engine companies there is no longer anyone to respond to medical emergencies when both ambulances are on calls. Outside ambulances are being called into the city on nearly a daily basis due to increased call volumes with no engine response to intervene during those long delays. And so I am deeply concerned about the health and well being of my friends and neighbors in their times of need. Since all of our firemen are either Paramedics or E.M.T.s, the closing of this engine house may mean the difference between life and death of the people I know and love.
The city is well aware of my concerns, and shared them through out most of my career. These concerns are evidenced by the purchase of automatic electronic defibrillators for all of the city's fire apparatus at great cost to the tax payer. Several of these expensive machines now sit idle collecting dust. These concerns were also manifest in the purchase of "mini-pumpers" that will easily fit down tight alleys of the Heights. The newest one purchased with O.C.D grant money due to the geographic and social variables that make up the Heights. Are we now in violation of those grant requirements? Will we have to pay the money back?
Certainly budget constraints are important. We all have to live within our means. But if this truly is the case how can the mayor justify 17 political hires this year while reducing the number of firefighters through attrition and the institution of a "by-out"? Wouldn't it be more prudent to hire a firefighter than a personal secretary? Wouldn't it be more prudent to hire a firefighter rather than another secretary in the personnel office? Shouldn't it more more noble for the mayor and his administrators to take a pay cut rather than compromise public safety? Especially in light of the fact the firemen themselves were willing to and have committed that very same decision? If we can't afford to fix the roof on East Station how can we afford to purchase an old bank building on Public Square at 100 times the cost? A building that has been on the market since I was in high school! I hate to say it, but I think our new mayor learned a little too much from the last one. If that's the reality of the situation then God help us all in the coming years.