GARY — Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is seeking to make some changes in public safety.
During her annual State of the City address Friday at the Genesis Convention Center, Freeman-Wilson touched on such issues as having future police and firefighters share duties, knocking down more blighted buildings and improving street lighting.
She also is hoping more businesses follow the example of companies like Rieth-Riley Construction Co. in helping to improve the quality of life in Gary.
Freeman-Wilson noted her administration has knocked down about 200 blighted residences in the past year with federal funds it has received through the Hardest Hit Fund Blight Elimination Program. She noted Gary has been more successful in carrying out the demolitions through the program than other communities in the state and is hoping to continue these demolitions as additional federal dollars are released.
In addition to spending federal funds to knock down the abandoned structures, the city is receiving volunteer assistance from Rieth-Riley Construction and some other companies in its efforts to try to stabilize neighborhoods.
"A number of organizations are getting together to give us free demolition help," Freeman-Wilson said. "I think it's a great example."
Jim Wiseman, an industrial coordinator with Rieth-Riley, said the company has wanted to give back to the community through such an outreach program. The firm, he said, reached out to some businesses to help absorb the cost and, at the city's request, will demolish four burned-out homes in the Miller section of Gary.
Freeman-Wilson spoke of how more of the city's employees are handling multiple tasks and a plan she brought up last year to have police and firefighters share some duties.
The city lost more than 10 percent of its police and firefighters basically because of lower than average wages, she said. The reduced workforce, she said, combined with the willingness of police and firefighters to explore the public safety idea allowed the city to provide a $10,000 wage increase to police and firefighters over a three-year period.
Current officers and firefighters will not be required to serve the dual roles unless they volunteer to become public safety officers, she said. She said some already have expressed an interest in the new positions.
She said when the city hires new police and firefighters "we will let them know that they will have dual responsibilities," Freeman-Wilson said. She thought training for the new public safety positions would begin in June or July.
"I think there's a movement now because people understand that you have to deal with the largest cost of the city and that's public safety," she said.
She said while Gary is paving streets and making some other improvements at Marquette Park and elsewhere, there are too many areas where the streetlights are not working.
She said in May, the city will enter into a maintenance contract with a company to permanently fix city-owned streetlights. She said they will also partner with NIPSCO to make sure the ones owned by that company are working. Freeman-Wilson said by June, Gary will have better lighting than it does now and it will work to maintain a consistent level of street lighting in the city.