CEDAR FALLS | The city of Cedar Falls is operating on a "razor-thin margin of error" in safeguarding its citizens following budget cuts and a reorganization, the head of unionized city firefighters said.
"I think overall, it's more difficult for us and for officers to do our jobs based on the cuts they've made throughout our department," Cedar Falls Firefighters Association President Jim Cook said. "They're operating on a razor-thin margin of error. Both police and fire, our emergency services, are operating on a razor-thin margin of error. And that's unacceptable for the citizens of Cedar Falls."
The head of the Cedar Falls police union offers a different perspective.
"From the police side, we really have not seen any change for us," said police investigator Mike Haislet, president of the police collective bargaining unit, affiliated with Teamsters Local 238. While down a couple of positions due to attrition, he said, "as far as day-to-day operations, we're not seeing anything."
Cook said some full-time fire positions have been lost through attrition due to the reorganization last year. He'd like to see some of the savings from that reorganization used to add staff.
"It's not just about a fire call. It's about any accident, any serious medical call. Emergency services are understaffed in Cedar Falls," Cook said. The use of paid on-call staff, volunteers and public safety officers is confusing and a big question mark, he said
"The city has designed a system that nobody can understand how they work, so nobody can debunk them," Cook said. Public safety personnel hear questions from the public about it.
Haislet has a different view of the public safety officer program. He's one of six of them, and additional police officers are in the application process.
"From our standpoint, that program's been working well," Haislet said. He has his normal duties, and if additional staffing is needed for a fire, "I get on my gear and go."
According to numbers provided by Public Safety Director Jeff Olson and Mayor Jon Crews, the city has 30 full-time firefighters and about another dozen part-time, paid-on-call and public safety officer positions. An additional seven police officers are in the application process for public safety officer positions.
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On the police side, the city has 40 full-time officers with a total additional 18 part-time, paid on call and public safety officers.
Crews added staffing per fire station matches that of many similarly sized Iowa cities.
However, Cook said the concerns go beyond his department.
"One of my suggestions is for the (City) Council and the decision makers on the city to really listen to their employees," Cook said. "That's across every department in the city. Because it's not just the Fire Department that's having issues. It's not just the police. It's parks. It's public works. It's everyone. We like to work. Those people who are actually doing the work know more about what is needed to get the work done than what the administration does."
He cited numerous citizen complaints over snow removal procedures this past winter as an example.
That can cause turnover, which causes a drop in efficiency, Cook said. For example, it might take longer to get a fire truck repaired and back in service without experienced personnel, even if the city has a new public works building for vehicle repairs.
"You can put up a building. The city has never had an issue with things like that," Cook said. "They don't want to spend money for personnel. Unfortunately, you need people to get the stuff done. That's the only solution, really."
If the city's going to reorganize at the top it should "add at the bottom" and provide enough staff to serve the citizens, Cook said.
Haislet said he understands Cook's concerns about full-time staffing. "In a perfect world we could have 100 police officers and 100 firefighters," more than double current staffing, "but that's not the real world," he said.
Firefighters took a vote of no confidence in the city administration in August 2014 over what they said was the administration's unwillingness to publicly discuss fire staffing levels. City officials have said that such a direct public discussion with firefighters is inappropriate outside the collective bargaining process on matters appearing in labor contract language.