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Garden City votes to lay off 6 firefighters

The Headquarters of the Garden City Fire Department

The Headquarters of the Garden City Fire Department located at 351 Stewart Ave. in Garden City. (Aug. 27, 2012) Credit: Steven Pfost

The Garden City Village board has voted to lay off one-fifth of its professional firefighters, a decision that caused an uproar from residents, firefighters and their families at the board's meeting Thursday night.

Six paid firefighters will be laid off and one lieutenant demoted to firefighter after the board's 6-2 vote. The effective termination and demotion dates have yet to be determined, officials said.

"My career has peaked, but these young men have families," said Lt. Frank Roca, a 23-year department member who will be demoted. "My heart is breaking for these guys."

Mayor Donald T. Brudie and trustee Andrew J. Cavanaugh voted against the layoffs. The six board members who approved the layoffs as a cost-cutting move -- John J. Watras, Nicholas P. Episcopia, Laurence J. Quinn, Dennis C. Donnelly, Brian C. Daughney and John A. DeMaro -- avoided eye contact with the audience of more than 150 people, some of whom shouted, "Shame on you," while others cried.

"I am opposed to reducing the staff of a department charged with lifesaving and property protection responsibilities," Brudie said.

The 92-year-old hybrid department -- overseen by the village -- has four paid lieutenants, 31 paid firefighters and about 100 volunteer members, who augment their paid colleagues. The layoffs will leave the force with three lieutenants and 26 firefighters, including three who are on disability, Village Attorney Gerard Fishberg said in an interview after the meeting.

"This is a huge economic saving," said Fishberg, adding the village would save $950,000 a year and only needs a minimum of 18 firefighters a day. "In simple terms, this comes down to overstaffing."

Many residents and firefighters at the meeting complained the board rushed to make a decision without proper notice to the community and failed to explain the reason for the cuts. They alleged the action was in retaliation for the fire department publishing advertisements in community newspapers criticizing the board before the village's runoff elections Jan. 29.

Firefighters said the move will save $107 a year per household.

"I can't believe that is the price we are willing to save to maybe put residents at risk," said resident George Sanders, a former Hempstead Fire Department chief, as the audience clapped in support.

Resident Leo Stimmler applauded the move. "I want to thank you for taking this action because senior citizens like me can't afford it," he told the board. "I think this took a lot of courage."

After the meeting, some trustees said the board has changed its previous position about eliminating nighttime staff at the Edgemere Road and Clinton Road stations. They said both satellite stations and headquarters on Stewart Avenue would be manned 24 hours a day, but staffing would be reduced.

Paid firefighters have argued that staffing reductions and station closings could jeopardize public and firefighters' safety.

"The volunteers can't provide the same high-class service without us," said Peter Thorp, a seven-year firefighter being laid off. "It is a two-way street."

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