Firefighters, Dozens of Commentators Speak Out Against Lawrence City Budget Proposal to Cut Fire and Medical Staff | News, Sports, Jobs

Photo taken by: Bremen Keasey

The conference room at Lawrence City Hall is packed with attendees for the city commission meeting scheduled for Tuesday, July 9, 2024.

In a packed city commission chamber Tuesday evening, fire department workers and dozens of Lawrence residents voiced concerns about a budget proposal that would reduce daytime staffing for the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Department’s medical department.

The city’s proposed 2025 budget presented to the commission Tuesday increases the property tax rate by 3.5 mills, but it also reduces the minimum number of firefighters required on a fire truck from four to just three as the department looks to expand its infrastructure.

Staff cuts are far from certain; the commission took no action on the budget proposal at the meeting, and final approval of the 2025 budget won’t come until September. But LDCFM Chief Rich Llewellyn and other members of the department had plenty to say about the issue Tuesday.

Llewellyn said discussing cuts in daytime firefighter staffing was difficult for him both “professionally and personally.” He said the growth of Lawrence, both geographically and in population, meant adding fire stations was critical.

“(The new stations) will not only serve the areas in which they are built, but will serve the entire community,” Llewellyn said.

At the same time, Llewellyn made it clear that he was in favour of fire engines being staffed by four people.

Llewellyn said federally funded research has shown that a four-person crew is much more efficient and told commissioners he believes the staffing reductions will “without a doubt” impact response times to fires and other incidents the LDCFM responds to, such as cardiac arrests.

“That could slow us down,” Llewellyn said. “We can’t send teams out right away if we don’t have enough people ready.”

Commissioner Lisa Larsen asked Llewellyn if other communities in the region employ three firefighters per truck. Llewellyn said the Kansas City, Mo., department employs four firefighters per unit, while Overland Park has four if the truck responds alone. Other nearby communities, such as Lenexa, Olathe and Kansas City, Kan., employ three firefighters per truck.

Before the meeting, dozens of firefighters and members of the union that represents them, the International Association of Firefighters Local 1596, stood in front of City Hall with signs protesting the proposed job cuts, and many drivers passing by honked in support.

Photo taken by: Bremen Keasey

Local firefighters and their union representatives demonstrate in front of City Hall ahead of the Lawrence City Commission meeting on Tuesday, July 9, 2024.

The union on Friday urged the commission to reject cuts that would reduce the number of firefighters on duty each day from 39 to 36 in the proposed budget. Additionally, fire captains and division chiefs sent memos to the commission opposing the cuts.

During the meeting, dozens of public commenters — many of them current or retired firefighters — urged the commission to ultimately reject the staffing change. Some said the change would contradict one of the city’s stated goals of creating a safe and secure community. Others said they believed the change would be a step backward and would put not only Lawrence residents but also firefighters at greater risk of death or serious injury in a fire or accident.

One commenter stated that he is a current firefighter and former member of the Kansas National Guard and that the most important lesson he learned during his service was that “no one gets left behind.”

“It’s a promise we make to civilians, to each other, to everyone we meet,” he said. “… Reducing our staff from four to three will make it harder for us to keep that promise.”

Following the public consultation period, Mayor Bart Littlejohn asked staff to determine how much the parking fee would need to increase if the city wanted to maintain its current staffing level of four firefighters per fire truck.

• • •

Another area that would be subject to cuts in the proposed budget was the Parks and Recreation Department, which was also a topic of discussion Tuesday. The proposed budget would eliminate three full-time positions and reduce part-time hours.

Luis Ruiz, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said reducing the number of part-time employees would likely mean reduced hours at many recreation centers and aquatics facilities. Ruiz said the hope is to close some facilities during the day when they are least used to try to reduce the impact on the public.

In addition, Ruiz said the proposal would eliminate funding that helps the department replace some outdated facilities. Because of those cuts, five parks — Clinton Outlet Park, Broken Arrow Park, Park Hill Park #1, Chaparral Park and McSwain Park — will ultimately lose their playgrounds. Clinton Outlet Park and Broken Arrow Park will also eventually lose their shelters, as will Deerfield Park, and Brook Creek Park will ultimately lose its restrooms.

That doesn’t mean they’ll disappear overnight, but these structures — which Ruiz said are considered “obsolete” and ADA-compliant — won’t be replaced as planned because of the reduction in funding.

Ruiz stressed that the current cuts are not final and that changes to recreation center hours have not yet been determined, but he promised the commission that he will make sure the department continues to provide the best services possible, regardless of how budget discussions unfold.

“When the time comes, we will make sure that we leverage everything possible to have the greatest impact on our budget with the least impact on our services,” Ruiz said.

Another key proposal in the budget bill is to place a measure on the November ballot that would allow Lawrence residents to vote to increase the sales tax on public housing units from 0.05% to 0.10%.

The tax would add an extra nickel of sales tax to every $100 of purchases made by consumers in Lawrence. State law requires all sales tax increases in the city to be put to a citywide vote.

Homeless Solutions Director Misty Bosch-Hastings said the tax increase would be needed to maintain current housing programs. The tax increase, which would double the money the city currently receives to help address housing issues from $1.25 million to $2.5 million, would help fund programs that were previously funded by federal grants that only run through this year.

Tuesday’s meeting, which introduced the 2025 budget, was the first step in a months-long budget process. At its July 16 meeting, the City Commission will be asked to set a maximum property tax rate, provide notice of intent to exceed the revenue-neutral rate, and formalize the dates for both the public hearing on exceeding the revenue-neutral rate and the public hearing on the 2025 budget. Both are currently set for Aug. 20. Finally, the commission is scheduled to vote on adopting the 2025 budget on Sept. 10.

Photo taken by: Bremen Keasey

Protesters hold signs outside the City Commission chambers during a commission meeting on Tuesday, July 9, 2024.

Other items on Tuesday’s meeting:

• The City Commission approved a bid of approximately $2.1 million to Bettis Asphalt & Construction Inc. to repave North Second Street/North Third Street from the “railroad tunnel to the northern city limits.” The project includes milling, patching and resurfacing the street, installing new curbs and gutters as needed and rebuilding non-ADA-compliant access ramps.

The city will also allocate $2.25 million to cover unforeseen costs, $400,000 of which will come from a Kansas Department of Transportation program.

The city expects work on the project to begin in August and be completed by November 8.

• Commissioners approved a resolution that will revise the School District Traffic Control Policy regarding where crosswalk guards will be stationed during the year. Previously, crosswalk guards at newly requested locations were placed there for the entire year to assess whether a location needed a guard. Because the city has had trouble staffing the required number of crosswalk guards, the guards will be at newly requested locations for only 30 to 60 days to determine if they are needed.