'Atrocious': Pa. fire union head decries staffing cuts
Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez announced that four firefighters would be cut under his proposed budget
The Express-Times, Easton, Pa
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — The Bethlehem firefighters' union is used to fighting flames and smoke, but its president is now fighting proposed staff cuts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Bethlehem Mayor Bob Donchez last week unveiled his proposed 2021 budget, which includes a 5% tax increase and cutting six city jobs through attrition: four firefighters and two Bethlehem Service Center employees.
On Monday, Bryan Bokan, president of Local 735 Bethlehem Firefighters, posted an open plea on Facebook to Bethlehem residents.
Bokan expressed frustration after meetings with Donchez and Chief Warren Achey, saying the union members offered to make any other cuts so as not to lose personnel.
“We told them right out we understood there would be cuts coming,” Bokan said Monday afternoon. “There’s so much in the budget that we could work with ... we asked them to give us a number and we will do everything we can to get to that number.”
But Bokan said they were never given a targeted figure, and they were never given the chance to compromise or even discuss alternative measures with the city.
"Every firefighter serving the city knows what an impact this pandemic has had on the city, including its families, friends, patients, citizens we serve, and every firefighter is willing to sacrifice and compromise to keep the city as safe as possible,” Bokan posted.
It’s been a few years since the department faced staffing cuts, and the most recent cuts dropped personnel down from 116 to 110, said Bokan, who has been the union president for the past two years and a city firefighter for 15.
The fire department would have 106 firefighters if the current cuts are approved. Bokan said he asked city officials if the positions would be refilled when the economy rebounds, but was told staffing would stay 106 firefighters.
"This atrocious act must not and will not be tolerated,” he wrote in the open plea on Facebook.
“We truly need your support in standing up to the Mayor and Fire Chief who have grown further from the realism that Bethlehem needs its first responders and that the Lehigh Valley is one of the only areas in Pennsylvania still growing. They want to make the city less safe, they would like to make the men and women who protect the structures in which they live, less safe,” Bokan wrote.
Bokan has reached out to city council, and said he and other department personnel will be watching and calling into the budget hearings.
Donchez said the biggest financial hit for Bethlehem is its casino host fee as Wind Creek Bethlehem operates reduced table games, a $1 million drop in earned income taxes and the lack of entertainment tax revenue as the pandemic has slashed concerts and events.
“Our guys understand with the pandemic, everyone is facing difficult times. Our guys, we’re not immune" but the department’s call volume has not changed, Bokan said.
(c)2020 The Express-Times, Easton, Pa.