By Paul Fallon
The Charleston Daily Mail
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Saying he knows the proposal will be controversial, the president of Charleston City Council wants to see police officers cross-trained to fight fires.
Tom Lane, an at-large Republican, said the measure could help save money in the fire and police departments, both of which are strapped by ballooning pension liabilities.
Council already has eliminated 10 vacant positions on the police force, bringing the total number of positions to 163. City leaders expect that move to save about $380,000 annually.
Over the past year, the fire department staff has been reduced by 27 positions, bringing the current number to 171. Because all of the positions were either vacant or eliminated through attrition, no firefighters lost their jobs.
The most recent round of cuts to the fire department is expected to save $505,000 annually.
All of the funds saved will be applied to the massive $258 million unfunded liabilities of the police and fire department pension plans.
The changes haven't been well received by many in the departments.
Firefighters protested in front of City Hall prior to one meeting in December when council was discussing cutting the vacant positions.
Lane acknowledged his proposal could trigger more controversy.
He knows many will resist his idea to begin cross-training police officers on other types of emergency services.
"Change is always controversial," Lane said. "But this is something we really need to look at."
Lane said he would ask city staff to explore ways to cross-train officers. If his proposal is successful, he thinks it could save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
"Police officers are the most mobile emergency responders in the city, and they're always the first on the scene anyway," he said.
He said he is also open to further cuts in the fire department.
Councilman Bobby Reishman, 17th Ward Republican, said Lane's idea is worth looking at. Reishman is chairman of the city's finance committee.
"I do know that other cities are doing this," Reishman said.
But Reishman said city leaders need to gather information. He doesn't want to act on the idea too quickly.
Reishman said he is comfortable with the size of the police and fire departments right now.
Emergency services require a significant portion of the city's $82 million budget, Lane said.
The combined budgets of the fire and police departments, including money set aside for capital outlays and retiree health care benefits, is $33.1 million, Finance Director Joe Estep said.
That's 40.4 percent of the city's budget.
Lane's proposal comes at the same time as a controversial proposal by Huntington Mayor Kim Wolfe to increase that city's user fee from $3 to $5 per week.
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones has said repeatedly that Charleston's $2-per-week user fee will not be increased so long as he is mayor.
Lane said he would keep an open mind during any discussion of raising Charleston's user fee but wanted to explore cross-training first.
Under Wolfe's proposal, Huntington would generate about $2.9 million a year, according to media reports.
Charleston's user fee helps fund the police department and road maintenance.
Reishman doesn't see Charleston's fee increasing any time soon.
He said the city had taken a lot of steps, including cuts to departments, to ensure that the user fee did not have to be increased.
"If it comes to the point where we have to do it, then we'll make that decision then," Reishman said. "But I don't think we're at that point yet."
Copyright 2012 Charleston Newspapers