Privatizing the Fire Department?

Council embarrassed by Mayor's naïveté about firefighter union's political power

Muncie (IN) Mayor Sharon McShurley said she is considering privatizing fire protection or utilizing volunteer firefighters to compensate for expected shortfalls in property tax revenues. "Why wouldn't we if we can provide public safety to the city for less?" she asked.

McShurley's announcement came in an interview with The Star Press after a Monday night meeting of Muncie (IN) City Council. She had planned to make the announcement while addressing the council at the end of its meeting, but was denied the opportunity to speak.

McShurley had already spoken earlier in the meeting. Council President Sam Marshall said permitting the mayor to speak twice would have been unfair to the general audience, which is only allowed to speak once for three minutes.

At previous council meetings, McShurley has said she was considering closing down fire stations and laying off firefighters in response to a looming budget crisis.

The city, McShurley said, is expected to lose $7 million in revenue over 2009 and 2010 in connection with property tax reform recently passed by state legislators.

The idea of privatizing fire protection or using volunteers to supplement paid firefighters was a hot topic at a conference of 100 Indiana mayors in French Lick last week, McShurley said.

"All the mayors are facing the same issues in Indiana," she said.

During her campaign last year, McShurley questioned why the city could not use volunteer firefighters in a fashion similar to reserve police officers.

Her Monday interview, however, was the first time she publicly promoted the idea of volunteers or privatization since taking office.

McShurley did not offer many details about how privatized fire protection worked or how many other cities contract out fire services.

It was unclear late Monday what steps the city would have to take to initiate such a measure.

Marshall said he was opposed to the idea of privatizing a fire department.

"You already have well-trained fireman," he said. "Why would you want to take that risk when you don't know what you're getting?"

Before McShurley's remarks, a debate between fire department supporters and taxpayers consumed much of Monday night's meeting.

A crowd of between 250 and 300 people attended.

About two-thirds wore yellow shirts supporting the fire department. The shirts -- printed by the local fire union -- read, "It takes firefighters to fight fires."

The supporters told city council stories about how firefighters, often acting as first responders to an emergency, saved them in a time of need.

"What chaos it would be without them," Marilyn Smith said.

A handful in the crowd, mostly members of Citizens of Delaware County for Property Tax Repeal, wore shirts criticizing spending for the fire department.

"Small cuts are not going to do it," Jeff Taylor said.


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