Fire department blazes trail for much needed downsizing

Several years ago, and other national and international observers heaped praise on Youngstown as “the incredible shrinking city” for its realistic recognition of the need to address deep declines in population and economic activity.

Since the 2005 adoption of the Youngstown 2010 plan that embraced such shrinkage, the decline continues though at a much more modest pace than over the past three decades.

According to estimated data released this year by the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of Youngstown stands at about 65,000, about 1,000 less than its official count in 2010. That 2-percent decline, however, is a far cry from the 15- to 20-percent declines in population recorded in each of the past three decades.

Nonetheless the downsizing of infrastructure and municipal services designed for a city of nearly 175,000 people remains incomplete for a city one-third that size.

That’s why news last week out of City Hall about contraction within the Fire Department is heartening. Mayor John A. McNally and Fire Chief John J. O’Neill Jr. announced plans to reduce the ranks of the department by taking one firetruck out of service and eliminating eight positions: three captains, three lieutenants and two firefighters. The savings to the city would be a hefty $1 million annually and would come through attrition brought on by retirements of aging fire department personnel. The plan also makes good economic and strategic sense because the number of structural fires has been declining, requiring less manpower to fight them. McNally noted the city department handled 326 fires in 2013, compared with 412 in 2012.

Most importantly, the cuts will come without jeopardizing the safety of city residents and businesses, the mayor assured, adding that none of Youngstown’s eight fire stations will be shuttered.

“The chief concerns are to make sure people are safe, and we have fast response times” to fires, McNally said. “Those will not be impacted by this [reduction]. It also helps the long-term financial health of the city.”


Such proactive thinking served as a cornerstone of the Youngstown 2010 plan. It remains just as important today as it was nine years ago. Income-tax revenue continues to decline, and the city in 2016 will lose its annual $2.9 million payments to Youngstown’s coffers for land the French company leased for its $1.1 billion expansion.

Planning for that massive hit to the city budget now will prevent Youngstown from going the way of Detroit — toward bankruptcy two years from now.

But the efficiencies in the fire department, which also include such viable strategies as streamlining work duties a la the private sector and seeking out available federal grant dollars, cannot and will not be sufficient to keep the city comfortably in the black. Other departments in city government must place their faith in the gospel of cost-cutting as well. One possible exception would be the police department, as crime — though down substantially in recent years — continues to outpace that of cities far greater in size. But even there, efficiencies and creative funding mechanisms must be employed. To his credit, Chief Robin Lees has demonstrated such public-spirited thinking, most recently in his plan to downsize the administration by cutting the number of captains from six to three.

Keeping the city’s financial head above water must remain a team effort. It must also remain true to the principles of foresightedness and accountability paramount to the Youngstown 2010 plan, principles that have proven their worth in slowing down the city’s population drain and in speeding up its economic vitality.

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