Saint John firefighters are warning that common council's plan to slash the city's fire budget will increase response times, reduce safety, and may result in higher insurance premiums.
City council is looking at a $143-million budget for 2012 that maintains the tax rate and avoids major service cuts.
As it stands, the proposed fire budget is $23.2 million, down from $23.7 million last year.
But it could be even less if the provincial government doesn't approve several controversial changes to the employees' pension plan to deal with the plan's $163-million deficit.
"Despite previous assurances that public safety levels would be maintained, firefighters learned Wednesday that eight to 24 personnel will be laid off, which will take an engine company out of service in the east side," Paul Stackhouse, president of the Saint John Professional Firefighters Association said during a news conference Friday.
'We feel it's our duty to warn residents about this pending decision and the impact it will have on their safety.' —Paul Stackhouse, fire union president
Response times in parts of East Saint John will jump to six or seven minutes, up from the current four minutes, said Stackhouse.
The new response time will be "well in excess" of the international standard of four minutes for urban fire departments to adequately protect residents in a residential home, he said.
In addition, a slower response time to the numerous industrial facilities in the area will also reduce the chance that an emergency can be contained in its early stages, said Stackhouse.
"We feel it's our duty to warn residents about this pending decision and the impact it will have on their safety," he said.
"The citizens and businesses in this part of Saint John deserve no less than an adequate level of fire protection, and they deserve to be consulted about changes that stand to reduce their safety."
"They simply deserve to know and that hasn't happened."
Report called for increases
Stackhouse contends council's proposed cuts fly in the face of a 2009 study by the city's former fire chief Rob Simonds. That report recommended staffing be increased to meet NFPA standards for fire protection and public safety, he said.
Council backed away from passing the 2012 muncipal budget on Jan. 17, due to concerns about what would happen if the provincial government fails to approve the proposed cuts to the employee pension benefits when the legislature resumes in March.
Deputy Mayor Stephen Chase said the city would have to come up with $9 million right away, which would mean 100 layoffs.
Council opted instead to table the proposed budget and will meet behind closed doors Monday night to discuss an alternate plan that includes a series of deep cuts and layoffs.
The Saint John employee pension plan was created by a special act of the provincial legislature so the legislature must approve any reforms.
One of the pension reforms the city is seeking is to cut cost-of-living adjustments for current employees and suspend indexing for retirees until the fund is fully recovered.
The proposed changes to indexing are expected to reduce the deficit by $75 million.
The fire department employs 156 full-time firefighters and another 19 part-time staff to serve 68,000 people.