By Rick Outzen
When city leaders list the reasons why someone should live inside the Pensacola city limits, fire protection is at or near the top of that list. At the recent mayoral candidate forum hosted by the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Mayor Mike Wiggins, Councilwoman Diane Mack and all the candidates bragged about the city’s fire department.
The firefighters are exceptional, but what many citizens don’t know is the force has shrunk over the past five years. There are 12 fewer firefighters in Pensacola’s six fire stations today than in 2005. The operating budget, however, has increased $578,300.
Fewer firefighters hamper the ability of the crews to enter burning structures. For every firefighter that enters a house that is engulfed by flames, there needs to be one outside ready to rescue him, if complications arise. Pensacola has three stations that only have three firefighters on a shift. We are putting them and the citizens at risk if another station is unable to also respond to a fire.
In his interview with Progressive Pensacola, Mayor Mike Wiggins praised the fire department. He said, “Our citizens should be able to sleep well at night knowing that police and fire are able to respond with world class response times.”
What is the value of “world class response times” if the firefighters have to wait for backup before they can enter the burning home? Wiggins did say that the city had applied for a grant to get more fire personnel, but the grant will only get nine firefighters for two years.
The City staff and the Pensacola City Council have cut back on the fire protection to make up for the unfunded fire pension. Even though the fire department is down 22 total employees since 2005, the Fireman’s Pension Fund contribution has increased over $1.1 million. The unfunded liability of the pension fund was nearly $19 million, according to the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report the year ending Sept. 30, 2009.
The unfunded liability of the Fireman’s Pension Fund as of Sept. 30, 1991 was $18.2 million. In almost 20 years, the City made no dent in the unfunded liability of this pension plan. It was simply an empty can that was continuously kicked forward to future city councils.
The deficit reached such a point in the past decade that city leaders could no longer ignore — especially since the general and police pensions also had huge unfunded liabilities — $49.8 million and $12.2 million respectively. The combined unfunded liability for both those pensions in 1991 was only $4.4 million.
In other words, the decisions of past city councils and city administrations to not properly fund the fireman’s pension has placed at risk the safety of today’s residents and its firefighters. It has also weakened one of the City’s major selling points: its fire protection.
The unfunded pension liabilities need to be whittled down. However, the funds shouldn’t be generated by sacrificing fire protection. Cuts to the general fund budget need to be found elsewhere. Grants shouldn’t be used to restore the level of service citizens have come to expect from the Pensacola Fire Department.
World class fire protection takes world class support from the Pensacola City Council.