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Letter to The Honorable Douglas Duncan,
January 16, 2003
The Honorable Douglas Duncan
Dear Mr. County Executive:
I am writing on behalf of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue, Inc. ("BCCRS"), to express our serious objections to the Fire Administrator's proposed FY03 Savings Plan and FY04 Operating Budget. BCCRS is extremely concerned that the budget proposals would (1) pose a serious risk to public health and safety as a result of cuts in front-line emergency services and (2) undermine the community-based Local Fire and Rescue Departments ("LFRDs"). We are also concerned about the process the Fire Administrator used in preparing these proposals. We urge you to reconsider these cuts in favor of alternative savings proposals that would not affect front-line emergency services and would not undermine the community-based LFRDs. In developing revised budget proposals, we respectfully request that you direct the Fire Administrator to follow a more inclusive process that incorporates the views of the LFRDs in the development of final proposals.
At the outset, we recognize the serious budget shortfalls confronting the County government and the need for the combined Fire and Rescue Service to shoulder some of the burden in addressing these shortfalls. We also recognize that no set of cuts will please every stakeholder in the fire and rescue system. Nonetheless, we believe two overriding principles should inform the process of identifying potential reductions in the fire and rescue budget. First, and most importantly, front-line emergency services should be the last - not the first - place to look for reductions. Second, proposed reductions should not jeopardize the strength of the community-based LFRDs that form the backbone of the County's fire and rescue system. Several years ago, the voters overwhelmingly backed a community-based system, and we vigorously oppose cuts that would undermine this vital aspect of Montgomery County's fire and rescue service.
Cuts in Front-Line Emergency Services
BCCRS is extremely concerned about the Fire Administrator's proposed cuts in front-line emergency services. These cuts will increase response times and potentially jeopardize the health and safety of County residents. For example, the proposed cut in the number of ladder trucks ("trucks") from 14 to 12 will certainly increase the amount of time it takes to ensure an adequate number of firefighters and equipment on the scene in the crucial first minutes of a working fire or other significant incident. It will also decrease our depth of resources on major fires such as the recent four-alarm fire at the Promenade Apartments. We also are concerned about proposals to "de-staff" apparatus. These staffing reductions will effectively put these units out of service, particularly during peak daytime hours. The District of Columbia tried similar budget gimmicks with the DC Fire Department in the mid-1980s, with disastrous results. Residents will be misled in believing that these units are protecting their families and homes when the reality is that the closest fire/rescue unit is miles away.
Collectively, the proposed cuts trucks and staffing will increase response times, reduce service delivery, and pose a threat to the health and safety of residents and fire/rescue personnel.
Cuts in Service to Bethesda and Surrounding Communities
BCCRS is particularly alarmed about the proposal to cut the number of trucks in Bethesda and the surrounding communities. Specifically, we vigorously oppose the proposal to replace two trucks - at Stations 10 and 20 - with a single truck at Station 26. Our opposition is reinforced by the proposal to move Truck 19 to Station 16, since Truck 19 provides second- and third-due service in key parts of the Bethesda and Chevy Chase areas.
The proposed cuts in truck service will dramatically increase truck response times to communities in many neighborhoods in the Bethesda, Cabin John, and Glen Echo communities. Adequate truck service is critical due to the large number of high-rise buildings in these communities. Traffic congestion, which will only grow worse as downtown Bethesda is targeted for additional growth, already increases response times in the down county area and further supports a rejection of this aspect of the Fire Administrator's proposed cuts.
Cuts in Support for Community-Based Fire and Rescue Departments
After restoring the proposed cuts in front-line apparatus and service, we urge you to reject the Fire Administrator's proposed cuts in support for the community-based LFRDs. These cuts go to the heart of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue System. Several years ago, Montgomery County voters overwhelming endorsed a community-based fire/rescue system, with the LFRDs as the backbone of that system. As you know, the operation of a 24-hour fire, rescue and EMS department requires an infrastructure to assisting with personnel recruitment and retention, community outreach, financial management, and the like. The proposed cuts in positions supporting the LFRDs and
reassignment of positions to fire/rescue headquarters in Rockville poses a grave threat to our community-based system and ignore the value of having administrators on site where issues they manage actually occur. These cuts should be rejected.
Concerns About the Budget Process
The majority of the LFRDs have complained that the Fire Administrator failed to comply with Chapter 21 in developing his budget proposals, and we join in these concerns. Chapter 21 of the County Code governs how the County's unified fire and rescue budget is to be developed. Specifically, the Code provides:
The budget process in Chapter 21 is clear and unambiguous. The Administrator forwards a proposed budget to the Commission, which forwards that budget - along with the Commission's analysis and recommendations - to you, the County Executive. Neither the letter nor spirit of Chapter 21 provides for the Fire Administrator to forward his proposed budget directly to you, a role that is assigned to the Commission.
Despite the explicit language in Chapter 21, the Fire Administrator largely bypassed the statutory role of the Commission in developing his FY03 and FY04 budget proposals. According to the comments of several Commissioners at a recent Fire and Rescue Commission meeting, the Fire Administrator forwarded his proposals directly to you, with a mere "carbon copy" provided to the Commission. In addition, the Fire Administrator provided little or no support to the Commission to assist it in formulating its statutorily required analysis and recommendations.
We believe much of the uproar over the Administrator's budget proposals could have been avoided had he followed the letter and spirit of Chapter 21. Rather than making unilateral recommendations to you, he should have worked through the Commission, which provides a forum for input from all stakeholders, including career personnel, the LFRDs, and citizen representatives. We could have helped to identify cost savings that would have avoided front-line service cuts and cuts that undermine the community-based LFRDs. Rather than allowing us to provide input through the orderly and inclusive process mandated in Chapter 21, the Fire Administrator has forced the various stakeholders to pursue a more divisive public debate on how to address budget constraints.
* * * * *
In conclusion, we urge you to (1) reject proposed cuts in front-line fire, rescue and emergency medical services, particularly the proposal to cut truck service at Stations 10 and 20; (2) reject proposed cuts in support to the community-based LFRDs; and (3) direct the Fire Administrator to follow a more inclusive process in formulating revised FY03 and FY04 budget proposals and to follow Chapter 21 in developing and submitting future budget proposals. We would be happy to work with you, members of the County Council, and others in this regard.
For further information, please contact President Chaconas at (301) 652-0077.