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Future of Strongsville (OH) Fire Department Uncertain after Voters Reject Tax Increase

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Bob Sandrick

The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

(TNS)

STRONGSVILLE, Ohio – The city is evaluating its Fire Department staffing levels, resources and finances this week after voters rejected Issue 49, a property tax increase that would have helped pay for additional firefighters and firefighter-paramedic equipment.

That’s what Fire Chief Jack Draves told cleveland.com Monday (Nov. 9). Council President Matt Schonhut and Matt Kasza, president of the Strongsville Fire Fighters Association, didn’t return emails. Councilwoman Kelly Kosek said she had no comment.

“There are adequate firefighters on duty to provide for the safety of the community,” Draves said. “Staffing remains unchanged and fluctuates daily, depending on available personnel.

“Overtime to backfill unscheduled absences remains suspended,” Draves said. “No full-time firefighters have been laid off or furloughed.”

According to unofficial results from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Issue 49 failed 13,882-11,825. Fifty-four percent of voters opposed the levy and 46 percent supported it.

The 2.5-mill tax levy, which council in July voted unanimously to place on the Nov. 3 ballot, would have allowed the city to hire 20 additional full-time firefighter-paramedics, some of whom would have served in a proposed fifth fire station in the center of town.

The tax increase would have generated about $4 million annually. It would have cost the owner of a home valued at $100,000 an additional $87.50 a year, and the owner of a home valued at $300,000 an additional $262.50 a year, according to Draves.

In August, Schonhut said the city’s fire department is understaffed as the number of emergency calls rises. He said he supported the levy and a fifth fire station because fire department response times to the center of town are too long.

Kasza said the union supported the levy, the hiring of additional full-time firefighters and construction of a fifth fire station. Draves said the city and firefighters have discussed a fifth station for several years.

In June, council considered hiring, for the first time in Strongsville, part-time firefighters to beef up the fire department staff. However, firefighters opposed the idea, saying part-timers would undercut the professionalism of the department. City Council tabled the measure.

In a PowerPoint presentation to council July 20, Draves said the fire department’s call volume has increased by 23 percent over the past five years, from 5,233 calls in 2015 to 6,422 in 2019. More than 65 percent of the calls in 2019 were for emergency medical service.

Draves said the city needs a fifth fire station because the population is aging and requires more emergency medical services. The number of senior-living communities has increased, and hospitals are discharging patients sooner than ever before.

Kasza, in a May email to cleveland.com, said the fire department has run a skeleton crew for years and has repeatedly requested increased staffing. Instead, the city has chosen to have firefighters work overtime to reach minimum staffing levels at the four stations.

The problem is that earlier this year, the city eliminated overtime for all municipal workers, including firefighters, due to declining income tax revenues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Kasza said that meant the fire department failed to achieve minimum staffing levels.

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