Saint John fire chief warns of truck losses if budget frozen

Saint John's fire chief says a budget freeze next year could remove two trucks from service.

City council begins exhaustive review of city services offered in preparation for 2015 budget

Saint John's fire chief says a budget freeze next year could remove two trucks from service in the city.

Kevin Clifford told city council in a service review on Monday night the department is already reeling from cuts made in 2012.

Saint John Fire Chief Kevin Clifford says freezing the fire department budget in 2015 could result in the loss of two fire trucks. (CBC)

Clifford said freezing the department's budget at $21.5 million in 2015 would, at a minimum, wipe out the overtime fund and eliminate a tanker truck. Depending on the effects of inflation and wage settlements, the department could also lose a ladder truck, which would slow response times that are already well below national standards.

"Firefighters' lives are at risk," said Paul Stackhouse, the union president.

"The numbers and our backup teams and our [rapid intervention teams] — as the chief said — are down and, of course, that puts more risk on the firefighters themselves."

A budget squeeze two years ago resulted in the elimination of one fire truck and 16 firefighter positions. Clifford said that resulted in the number of incidents where there was no truck available for response to jump tenfold.

"Prior to 2012 we had three to five times a year whereby we had no response available because we were occupied doing other events. Since 2012, it's been 40 and 50 times," said Clifford.

Clifford was among the first to appear before city council as part of a review of city services.

Over the next several weeks, all city departments and commissions will appear before council to explain the services they provide and to defend their budgets.

They will each have to present two scenarios: what will happen to their department with a zero budget increase in 2015, and what would happen with a zero budget increase with two per cent added for inflation.

Coun. Shirley McAlary believe most city departments are already "operating pretty close to the line."

Discover Saint John and Saint John Industrial Parks were also among the first to present on Monday night.

​Coun. Shirley McAlary said she doubts the review will show areas where significant cuts can be made to city services.

"I think most of the budgets right now are operating pretty close to the line," she said.

"I can't really think of any service that the city provides that citizens would want to do without."

The review is an initiative of Saint John Mayor Mel Norton, who was frustrated at the lack of room council had last fall while hammering out this year's budget.

This year, council is faced with contract obligations for employees. For example, the city is about to go to arbitration with the police union.