HAMMOND | City leaders have taken formal action to name public safety a priority in Hammond.
The City Council approved a resolution last week affirming public safety as a priority and stating the council — as the city's fiscal body — should be consulted if there are reductions to the police or fire departments as a result of fiscal constraints.
The resolution states that maintaining those services is a priority, and if it's impossible to maintain them, the matter should be presented to the council with full debate and input from the public.
The resolution comes amid tension about the city's decision to leave one of its four aerial firetrucks unmanned.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. has said the move will save the city about $1.2 million per year, without compromising safety. But firefighters disagreed and went door to door in the city, distributing to residents fliers about the reduction.
In the discussion, people from both sides of the issue spoke up.
The city estimates that with salary, insurance, overtime, pension contribution and uniform expenses, each firefighter costs about $100,000.
Edward Lomeli, president of Hammond Professional Firefighters Association Local 556, disputed that figure. He said the cost is closer to $80,000 or $85,000.
The city has reduced the number of firefighters, created an inflation in overtime and now is coming back to say more needs to be cut, he said.
"It's smoke and mirrors," Lomeli said. "There's no way we can tolerate smoke and mirrors when it comes to public safety. If there's a way we can come together and find a solution to this, we are all for it."
City Controller Bobby Lendi pulled out a list of firefighters' salaries and said some earned $22,000 to $25,000 in overtime alone last year.
"It comes down to money," Lendi said.
The decision will result in firefighters having to do more with less, which the council charged every city department to do, Lendi said.
Several firefighters, city workers in other departments and residents weighed in on the discussion. Some supported the decision, and some didn't.
At-large Councilwoman Janet Venecz thanked police and firefighters for what they do but said property tax caps have limited the city. Of the $55 million budget, $40 million goes to police and fire, leaving $15 million to run the city.
"And we are receiving less tax revenue than we received before," she said. "Something has to give here."
Venecz said the city needs to work together and drop the "them-against-us" mentality. "Let's get level heads here, people," she said. "There isn't enough money to go around."