MANSFIELD -- Jon Van Harlingen learned Thursday about cost-cutting measures in the Mansfield Fire Department when he read about them on Facebook.
The chairman of Mansfield City Council's finance committee said he was surprised. So was every other member of council, who asked Mayor Tim Theaker on Tuesday evening about his budget-cutting plans in the wake of COVID-19.
The mayor, whose administration on Tuesday afternoon directed fire Chief Steve Strickling to "cease" non-emergency overtime, didn't mention the OT decision in his response to council during the meeting a few hours later.
All nine council members told Richland Source on Friday the mayor didn't need council's permission to reduce the fire department's $600,000 overtime budget in 2020 in the wake of an estimated 20-percent decline in revenues due to the state-ordered pandemic response.
But all nine also said they would have appreciated knowing what Theaker was doing, a move that could result in temporary closure of one or two fire stations in the city, depending upon available daily manpower.
"I wish at least he would have given us a heads-up that they were going to be cutting overtime," said Phil Scott, a council at-large member and chair of the safety committee. "Maybe he didn't have to give us all the details if (all firefighters) weren't already aware of the cuts."
Theaker said Friday he didn't mention it during council's meeting on Tuesday because there had not been time to inform all the city's firefighters. The "virtual meetings" that council has been conducting due to COVID-19 don't lend themselves to executive sessions, the mayor said.
"If I (announce the OT decision) in public, then the public knows it before all of the firefighters do. That's not fair at all," Theaker said.
Two emails with the decision were sent to the chief Tuesday just before 4 p.m. by Safety-Service Director Lori Cope. The first was a directive to return "all non-sworn personnel back to their normal duty days and hours." The second was to halt non-emergency overtime.
Cope said Friday the city continues to review options.
"We anticipate this would only close a station in the event that we did not have enough firefighters working that day to man that station," Cope said. "This can change daily and will depend upon how many firefighters are off on any particular day.
"This directive was made in an effort to be responsive to the financial predictions given. It is my hope that the actual numbers prove this reduction in overtime is not needed and would allow us to be back to current staffing levels at each of our fire stations sooner rather than later.
"The mayor and his administration will continue to work to remain fiscally responsible with taxpayers dollars. Rest assured that we will continue to serve the entire city with personnel from all stations, and give the very best service possible, as our citizens have come to expect and deserve," Cope said.
BUDGET DECISION: During a year in which the city already had a tight budget, Finance Director Linn Steward told the administration and council she is projecting a 20-percent decline in revenue.
The vast majority of municipal revenue comes from income tax and the national jobless rate has risen to almost 15 percent since the pandemic began several weeks ago. More than 1.1 million Ohio residents have filed unemployment claims in the last seven to eight weeks.
Under the mayor's directive, the fire department will not back-fill positions with overtime when personnel are scheduled to be off or cannot work due to illness or other reasons.
The 92-person fire department attempts to maintain 19 firefighters/paramedics on every shift, which allows it to keep each fire truck and rescue vehicle operating at all times.
Under the directive, which took effect Thursday, station No. 2 on Brookwood Way will be closed if manpower dips to 16 on a given day. Station 4 on South Main Street will close if only 13 personnel are available. There will also be varying levels of staff members being cross-manned to other vehicles.
The change could lead to increased response times for both firefighters and paramedics to certain areas of the city.
Theaker said he agonized over the decision, but said reducing OT was necessary. He estimated it costs the city about $1,000 in salaries and benefits when a single fireighter works a 24-hour overtime shift.
"We have been spending about $80,00 per month in fire department overtime," said the mayor, whose administration is working to get reimbursement for COVID-19-related expenses through the federal and state government.
Theaker said he is on the phone often with U.S. Rep. Troy Balderson, state Sen. Larry Obhof and state Rep. Mark Romanchuk to make sure the city gets its "fair share" of relief funding as it becomes available. The uncertainty of those relief dollars make budgeting difficult, the mayor said.
"A lot of people have been misinformed. We are not laying people off ... yet. I am hoping there won't have to be a reduction in heads in the police and fire departments. A lot of other cities are already laying off people. With this move, we are pushing the bucket further down the road before we have to make tougher decisions.
"We are trying to put a tourniquet on the cut to try to slow the bleeding. If this becomes bad, we are hoping not to lose a major limb," Theaker said.
PUBLIC INFORMATION: That public "misinformation" could be reduced if the mayor shared his plans, said council members, allowing them to answer questions they all receive from residents in their wards.
Council President Cliff Mears said he applauded Theaker's efforts to reduce costs, "but it would have been helpful if we had known so we could help inform the public. That puts us in an uncomfortable situation and makes us look uninformed. We're elected to represent the people and we are expected to be able to tell them what's going on."
Council member Jean Taddie, who represents the 6th Ward, said she learned about the policy change from a Mansfield resident.
"I and other council members would like to be informed about the budget tightening measures. We will be having finance committee meetings that should shed further light on what future plans are," Taddie said.
"In the meantime, I would like to see the mayor and his team forward announcements such as these to council. You can probably imagine that we get calls and contacts from residents in real time, and so it would be most helpful to us if we are included in the information chain."
Fourth Ward Councilman Alomar Davenport, a member of the finance committee, shared Taddie's sentiments.
"The administration has the authority to make these type of decision, however, council should have been made aware of the possibility," he said. "By keeping council in the dark, we are unable to effectively communicate with the community what is actually happening.
"In this circumstance, because there has been no communication with the public it has allowed for a false narrative to circulate though out the north end. Council should be aware of these type of decisions."
Van Harlingen, who represents the 3rd Ward, noted the administration has the right to reduce OT.
"It would would have been nice to have a heads up, but they do have that right. Whether I agree with that decision or not, the administration does have the right to do that," he said.
Fifth Ward Councilman Jason Lawrence, also a member of the finance committee, said he is not surprised by anything in today's uncertain times.
"I am disappointed with any cuts. With that said, it would have been nice to receive a 'heads up.' However, the mayor does not have to seek council approval to make a decision like this," Lawrence said.
Cheryl Meier, who represents the 2nd Ward, agreed Theaker has the authority to cut the overtime.
"While I appreciate transparency within the role of city government, and would like to made be aware of the decisions that effect my constituents, the administration has the authority to make this move. They do not need council approval," Meier said. "I do hope that it’s made clear to the citizens of Mansfield though, that no station would be closed if the number of firefighters scheduled to work report for duty.
"This directive, as I understand it, only reduces overtime hours."
First Ward council representative Laura Burns agreed it would have been better if council had been told. She also learned of the decision on Facebook.
"I thought this can't really be right. I wish I had gotten a heads up. I am a child of a police officer and the safety forces are so important to me," Burns said. "We have deemed these people essential, which means we can't live without them.
"With all the services they provide to the community, it makes me very uncomfortable to know we're at a bare minimum."
At-Large Councilman David Falquette said he believes Theaker is a "very thoughtful man" and "these decisions weigh heavily on him."
"These decisions are his to make. It would be great to have some advance warning, but it is not required," Falquette said.
"I think some type of budget consideration needed to be made with the uncertainty of the federal support money that is promised to offset the cost of the virus, i.e. equipment and labor.
"This action, since it was taken early, could save the city from layoffs toward the end of the year. I am sure (Theaker) decided between several options and this was the first one. He may have more moves to make as tax revenue projections becomes reality," Falquette said.