New Brunswick

Saint John fire cuts likely, says deputy mayor

Saint John council will meet behind closed doors again on Saturday to discuss the budget, but the deputy mayor says the decision to trim the fire department's budget may already be made.
Deputy Mayor Stephen Chase thinks council will go ahead with plans to trim the fire budget by two per cent. (CBC)

Saint John council members will lock themselves behind closed doors again on Saturday to discuss the budget and potentially serious cuts to city services.

But their decision about trimming the fire department's budget to $23.2 million, down from $23.7 million last year, may already be made, according to Deputy Mayor Stephen Chase.

"I get the sense that council is resolved," he said.

Chase said he does not believe his fellow councillors will back down, despite a door-to-door campaign launched last week by the firefighters union, warning the public that the cuts will be dangerous and costly.

Paul Stackhouse, the president of the Saint John Firefighters' Association, has said the two-per-cent cut will put an engine company out of service on the city's east side and will result in the loss of up to 24 personnel.

That will increase response times, reduce safety and may result in higher insurance premiums, Stackhouse said.

Fire union president Paul Stackhouse has warned the proposed cuts will put public safety at risk.

But Chase said he isn't convinced, based on information he said he received from Kevin Clifford, the city's acting fire chief.

"The answers that I've received and I've shared with other members of the council have certainly reaffirmed that we are making the right decision — that decision being to rein in the expenses of the fire department while balancing that off with maintaining a superior, effective fire service for the City of Saint John," said Chase.

The national standard is that four fire trucks with 16 firefighters and a command crew respond to a structural fire, he said.

"That's what we currently do and that's what we'll continue to do," said Chase.

By comparison, the neighbouring Kennebecasis Valley only sends between seven and nine firefighters, while Fredericton sends 10 and Moncton sends 14, he said.

"So in comparison to communities in New Brunswick, we are certainly much stronger, and in comparison to fire services across Canada, we are a strong service," Chase said.

Saint John council will discuss a so-called Plan-B budget in private on Saturday.

As a result, Chase disputes the notion that homeowners will face higher insurance rates. Area residents will still see more firefighters and quicker response times than their neighbours in the Kennebecasis Valley, he said.

Coun. Bill Farren, who is a former head of the district labour council, and Coun. Bruce Court have also both expressed support for the proposed fire cuts. This, despite the firefighters union having endorsed them in the 2008 municipal election.

The fire union targeted Chase in that election, urging people not to vote for him, but Chase ended up winning more votes than anyone else running for councillor at large.

Saint John council has been considering at a $143-million budget for 2012 that maintains the tax rate and avoids major service cuts.

But that financial plan was based on the principle that the legislature would approve several controversial changes to the city's employee pension plan to deal with the plans $163-million deficit.

Among the proposed changes is cutting cost-of-living increases, which would save an estimated $75 million.

If the province doesn't approve the changes, the city will have to find an extra $9 million, so it's looking at a so-called Plan B budget.

Council met behind closed doors for almost five hours on Monday to discuss Plan B, but adjourned without making any decisions.

They expect to meet again all day Saturday in the board room of city hall.

It's unclear if they will be ready to vote on the budget at Monday's regularly scheduled council meeting.