Five Alarm Fiasco
Councilor Gene Tacy’s bid to rescind $620K in fire department spending fell flat at last week’s City Council meeting. During debate, his fellow councilors blasted his efforts as disrespectful showmanship.
NORTHAMPTON — City councilors spent almost an hour last Thursday discussing a order filed by Ward 7 Councilor Eugene Tacy to rescind more than $600,000 in spending for the Fire Department and its ambulance service before voting 7-1 to shoot it down.
Tacy, and at times Ward 3 Councilor Angela Plassmann, took heat from several councilors over his bid to yank funding from the department months after it had been recommended by the Capital Improvements Committee, OK’d by the Finance Committee, and approved by the City Council in two separate readings.
Tacy said he decided to file the motion after attending Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) meetings where local officials were advised to tighten their belts in preparation for lean times. He and Plassmann later visited the Fire Department to investigate their spending priorities, said Tacy, and came away with a sense that money was being misspent on a concrete floor repair, on two vehicle purchases, on a “Jaws of Life” system, and other items.
“I’m an expert in concrete,” said Tacy, in explaining his qualifications to City Council President David Narkewicz. “I’ve worked with it for 30 years.”
Tacy found little support for his position among his peers.
Narkewicz and Ward 6 Councilor Marianne LaBarge both challenged the notion that Tacy was acting upon the advice of the MMA.
“I didn’t come back from the MMA thinking we should hit the Fire Department,” said LaBarge, who attended two recent conferences with Tacy.
Ward 5 Councilor David Murphy said rescinding funds that were vetted by the Capital Improvements Committee — which he chairs — and passed by the City Council undercuts not only fire department top brass but fellow city officials. “Let’s respect our department heads and let’s respect the process,” said Murphy.
Tacy never attended any Capital Improvement Committee meetings, Murphy pointed out, an observation later echoed by At-Large Councilor Jesse Adams.
Having such a contentious debate on the council floor Thursday, said Murphy, “makes us look like a bunch of buffoons if we fall for this.”
Tacy’s Hit List of Fire Department Transfers
On Tacy’s hit list for rescinding were a $36,000 staff-inspection vehicle and $24,500 to repair the apparatus room concrete floor, which were approved for transfer from the Fire Department Revolving Fund.
But the bulk, $560,000, was the transfer of several items from the Ambulance Receipts Reserved Fund: $220,000 to buy a fifth ambulance; $148,000 for cardiac monitors; $95,000 to replace extrication tools, including a “Jaws of Life”; $62,000 for automated cardio-pulmonary resuscitation machines; and $25,500 for an EMS response-administrative vehicle.
During the summer, the Capital Improvements Committee reviewed requests from almost every city department, and made its recommendations after weighing priorities and available funds.
On Sept. 16, the council approved the spending, but only after Fire Chief Brian Duggan and Deputy Chief Christopher Norris gave empassioned testimony about department finances. Their appearance was prompted by Tacy’s using the term “Fortune 500 bonues” to describe the stipends paid to Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel. (See “Tacy’s Ambulance Attack Axed”.) Duggan said the attack on contract-negotiated stipends had hurt departmental morale.
At the Oct. 21 council meeting, Tacy introduced a late-filed motion to undo the ambulance fund transfers, but it died for lack of a second. He refiled the order last week, and Plassmann — who had missed the previous meeting — seconded the motion; during debate, she defended Tacy’s efforts, but in the end voted against his rescinding action with the rest of her colleagues.
Tacy has been a vocal critic of not only the EMS stipends, but of Mayor Mary Clare Higgins’ budgetary policies.
Higgins and City Finance Director Christopher Pile have set up the ambulance service as a self-supporting business, which is tracked by its own set of books independent of the general budget. The revenues are dumped into a reserve account, from which expenses are paid; that account also pays for the salaries of nine firefighters. The whole operation is separate from property tax revenues, which Higgins said allows officials to keep better track of the money.
Tacy contends that all revenue generated by the ambulance service should go straight into the city’s general fund. That way, he says, the City Council can make better decisions about where the money should be spent, especially in tough economic times.
Tacy Takes Criticism from Almost Every Other Councilor
On Thursday night, Tacy’s motion could easily have been voted down with little debate. Instead, the council seized an opportunity to tell Tacy and Plassmann, his political ally, just what they thought of his gambit.
Ward 4 Councilor Pamela Schwartz charged that Tacy, in targeting only the Fire Department in his budgetary scrutiny, was not being straightforward about his motives. “There’s an appearance of vigilance that in fact is not authentic,” she said. She said there was “tremendous arbitrariness” in Tacy’s budget investigations, and that he was wasting the council’s time. “And I think we need to stop this,” she said.
Narkewicz delivered a dissertation on the Fire Department’s need for a fifth ambulance, and charged that Tacy was poorly informed because he hadn’t taken part in the capital planning process.
LaBarge chimed in with an emotional defense of the fire department’s request for life-saving equipment. If it weren’t for city fire and ambulance crews, she said, her husband might have died last year from a heart attack: “I cannot, Councilor Tacy, agree with taking away this equipment, which is absolutely necessary to run an ambulance.”
Plassmann rose to Tacy’s defense, saying that Chief Duggan himself had admitted to her that there were “things he could do without.” Plassmann recommended putting off building repairs and equipment purchases for another year.
Plassmann expressed appreciation for Tacy’s scrutiny of the budget, and said that next year she would get involved in the capital planning process early to make sure things are done right, charging that this year, “apparently not enough questions were asked.” After apologizing to her constituents for not doing her research this time around, she added: “In the future, I will ask the questions and do my homework.”
Ward 2 Councilor Paul Spector hit back at Plassmann, saying that her apology to Ward 3 not only implied that the process was amiss, but amounted to political gamesmanship.
“When people are in hard economic times, they get angry; they question things,” said Spector. “We’ve seen this in the national election — I think to play into that anger right now on a local issue is extremely destructive to our community.”
Tacy, meanwhile, stuck to his guns, repeatedly invoking the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and saying that communities should not spend money unnecessarily.
While he said the fire department “has performed stellarly,” Tacy said he felt the $620,000 could be better spent “to do different things.”
In the end, the measure went down to defeat, with only Tacy voting “yes” to the cuts.
David Reid can be reached at dreid@northamptonmedia
Audio by Mary Serreze
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