Something isn't right in El Mirage.
City Manager BJ Cornwall laid off six firefighters on August 6 even though firefighter union reps came up with enough money to bridge more than their share of the city's $1.2 million budget shortfall.
Cornwall first told New Times that the firefighters were laid off because the union reps didn't accept the city's offer. But they did accept the city's offer -- even though it cut out more out of their paychecks than the city needed to balance its budget. When New Times pointed out the contradiction, Cornwall said that he laid off the six firefighters because the city couldn't afford them.
Tonight, the city council is considering whether to rescind Cornwall's decision and re-hire those firefighters.
The situation has created confusion in the community because those firefighters were supposed to staff a second fire station. Voters overwhelmingly approved a $16 million bond in 2008, and $6.9 million of that was for a second fire station to serve the southern flank of the city.
Now, there are 18 fire fighters remaining in the El Mirage Fire Department, which serves about 34,000 residents in the 11-square-mile city. And it's a fairly busy station.
Last year, El Mirage received 2,500 emergency calls for help. Even with two fire trucks in service and 24 firefighters on the payroll, firefighters from neighboring communities and fire districts assisted the city with 25 percent of its calls.
As part of a Valley-wide agreement between fire departments, the system is set up so that the closest fire truck that isn't already on a call responds to a scene. That means that for one out of four emergency calls in El Mirage, crews from another city are closer or more available than the city's own firefighters.
It's unclear when, and if, that second fire station is coming online. That means a $500,000 fire truck recently purchased by the city will continue to collect dust behind the fire station.
Cornwall couldn't give New Times a general timeline for that second station. He also offered conflicting explanations for why he laid off the firefighters.
First he said that he laid off the firefighters because union representatives rejected his "best and final" offer during labor negotiations. During the same interview, he told New Times that they were laid off because the city couldn't afford to pay them.
Those firefighters were being partially supported by a federal grant that city officials applied for. Since Cornwall laid off the firefighters, El Mirage will have to reimburse the feds more than $90,000.
Cornwall said that they only applied for it because they miscalculated that six firefighters would cost the city only $57,000 for the first year. Later, they realized that it was more like $193,000 for the first year and $1.5 million over the life of the grant, provided there were no raises or benefit increases.
It still doesn't make sense to lay them off if a second fire station is in the works. Those dollar amounts should be looked at as a savings, not necessarily an expense.
It might seem that the explanation lies with the city recently declaring a financial crisis. Fourteen city employees were laid off. The police department cut $87,000 from its budget.
And the fire department offered up $215,000 in cuts by giving up vacation days, uniform allowances and other benefits. It was enough to bridge the city's budget gap, but it wasn't enough to satisfy Cornwall.
If it was just dollars and sense, the public might be able to understand that, hey, the money simply isn't available to sustain a second fire station.
But the bonds have already been sold for that second station.
Cornwall said that the money is in a separate account, but wasn't clear on what would be done with that money. He said they had to consult legal experts.
And if it was just a matter of not being able to afford those six firefighters, why didn't Cornwall just tell that to the firefighters' union reps? Why go through negotiations and declare, as Cornwall did, that his goal was not to lay off any public safety workers?
The truth is that even when firefighters accepted the city's offer, which on top of all the other concessions, included restructuring pay periods to further cut into firefighters' overall salaries, Cornwall said that he would consider their acceptance of the city's offer.
Then he told them it was too late, that he'd made up his mind and the firefighters were gone.
But he never told them what he told New Times, that the city couldn't afford to keep them on staff.
Some speculate that Cornwall is at odds with the firefighters -- not for financial reasons, but political ones. Valley firefighters' associates supported candidates in El Mirage who are not fans of Cornwall.
Those candidates' victory on Tuesday may very well mean Cornwall could be losing his job as well.
Perhaps tonight's meeting will shed some light on the truth behind the layoffs and what the future holds for emergency services in El Mirage.
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