The Newburgh City Council approved its controversial 2020 budget at last Thursday’s City Council meeting.
“We’ve been working around the clock to finalize the amendments to the budget,” said City Manager Joe Donat. “The one thing that has been abundantly clear to me, since I started here ten months ago, is that our workforce is one of the most dedicated groups of people that I have ever come across. We’re surrounded here by many of our colleagues, all of whom I look up to more than they know.
Unfortunately, over the course of the last few months, we’ve had to have some very difficult conversations over what the future holds for them.”
Despite continuous criticism against cuts and layoffs, the City Manager’s 2020 fiscal budget included cuts and layoffs to the fire department and police department. The city has 30 days to notify the officers being let go.
In total the budget amounts to $48 million. 16 positions will be cut from the fire department, and 19 positions will be cut from the police department. Before cuts, there are 69 firefighters and 83 police officers. Two of the cuts within the fire department, and four of the cuts within the police departments are for vacant spots. Those spots were intended to be filled. The rest of the cuts are full time employees. The layoffs are to save the city $3 million.
“If we don’t do these cuts,” said Comptroller Todd Venning during the meeting. “There isn’t going to be any fire department.”
During public comment, many spoke out begging the council to reconsider the cuts.
Starting off public comment was Nancy Bryan. Bryan is not a resident of Newburgh, but she has a strong connection to the firefighters of Newburgh. Bryan is a volunteer firefighter in Cornwall, and teaches in Newburgh.
“I know these firefighters,” said Bryan. “Who each and every day are willing to put their lives on the line. Yes, their very lives for this city and its residents. Some were my students. What a joy to see them so devoted to the place they grew up, that they stay and serve.”
Reciting from a paper, Bryan’s voice slowly became angrier and angrier. “Now you have put their lives and everyone they love and protect in danger.”
Bryan ended her comment to a series of claps. “Mutual aid is not a bargaining chip,” said Bryan. Frequently, the topic of mutual aid between the city’s fire department and other municipalities has come up as a topic of criticism.
“We don’t have anything left to give,” said Nick Bedetti, Vice President of Local 589, over the cuts. “We have nothing left to give. That’s 16 positions [of the fire department that] you guys want to cut. That’s a 25 percent reduction in our staff. We can’t do it.”
Bedetti explained that the fire department was willing to work with the city to address issues with overtime and more, but felt there wasn’t much response. “It was years and years of mismanagement,” said Bedetti. He proceeded to mention other problems like the lack of a stable fire chief. “We can’t have cuts.”
Bedetti’s comment suddenly got tense as the audience started to jeer at the council, after Mayor Torrance Harvey laughed. “What’s so funny?” yelled one man.
One of the individuals who jeered was, retired New York City firefighter James Bittles.
Harvey paused Bedetti’s comment to ask Police Chief Doug Soloman to remove Bittles from the meeting. After a brief exchange, the man walked out.
The public comment lasted over an hour, with comments from all sides of the spectrum. A majority of comments were against the cuts, some were more understanding of the decision.
Carla Johnson was one of the more understanding individuals. “I understand that we need our fire department, we need our police department,” said Johnson. “I just feel that disrespect to you [the council, is wrong]; this is your show, this is your house. Them numbers don’t lie because it is you sitting here.”
Johnson wondered if it would be easier to take on volunteer firefighters, to decrease costs. She also spoke on encouraging more firefighters from the direct community.
In addition to layoffs, the council voted a 0.25 decrease in taxes for homestead property tax payers and a 4.26 increase in taxes for non-homestead tax payers.
“We’ve explored every other option available to us,” said Donat. “In my mind, this is the only way we can move forward.”