Wilmington City Council approved an FY18 operating budget Thursday night, but by slim margins. The narrow 7-6 vote was fueled in large part by opposition to fire department cuts.
At one point - Councilman Bob Williams asked council members voting for the budget to volunteer to give up their district’s engine company.
The debate nearly led to a motion sending the budget back to the finance committee, but Councilman Bud Freel asked for a budget vote and it squeaked through.
Firefighters – out in force with signs – stomped out of council chambers promptly after the vote.
Council President Hanifa Shabazz says she could vote in good conscience for the cuts because they were positions added a few years ago through a federal SAFER grant.
“We had a lot of heartburn on whether or not we were going to take that SAFER grant because we knew we couldn’t sustain it once the dollars ran out," Shabazz said. "But we agreed we would take it so that we could hire some firefighters back on and increase our authorized strength.”
Wilmington received a 2010 SAFER Grant worth $1.7 million in February 2011, funding 13 firefighter positions. Eight firefighters were re-hired after being laid off due to budget cuts, and the other five hires filled spots vacant because of attrition.
Local Firefighter Union President Kevin Turner says this budget is another blow to department morale already declining after the deaths of three firefighters last year.
“There’s still many firefighters on the job that are having serious problems with what occurred on September 24th, and this is how we reward them?" Turner said. "This is how the city rewards the fact that they spent $6 million on burn care for firefighters and they’re angry at that because they didn’t have a catastrophic coverage in place.”
He says the 16 positions eliminated weren’t vacant but open positions the city refused to fill. But the vacant classification is what Freel says made them a higher priority for elimination.
“I mean the budget’s $154 million, over $100 million is personnel cost," Freel said. "It doesn’t leave anywhere else to cut and you have to look at positions. And we’re going to be looking at every department.”
Freel says more cuts are likely after reviews of the finance and public works departments. Council also approved 7.5 percent property tax increase.