Lincoln cops and firefighters stay

City Council votes against contracting out services
By: Carol Percy, Reporter Lincoln News Messenger
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If ever there was a City Council meeting worth going to, that meeting was this past Tuesday night at McBean Park Pavilion. The event had all the trappings of a late night drama—heroic stories, confrontations, impassioned speeches. And a finale that evoked wild cheering.

More than 100 audience members shifted in their seats for nearly three hours, enduring the bright lights, the buzzing heater, the palpable tension as more than 20 police officers and firefighters awaited the City Council’s momentous decision: would public-safety services stay local or would they be contracted out to the county and the state.

But first, the speakers lined up at the microphone.

Chief Brad Harris of Cal Fire made a sales pitch for contracting Lincoln firefighters out to Cal Fire. His was an articulate, well-prepared speech but he made a grave mistake —he forgot the name of Lincoln, a mistake that Councilman Paul Joiner called him on.

“Chief Harris repeatedly referred to our community as ‘Lincoln City.’ It may be a minor thing but I thought that unintentional misstatement was demonstrative of the sense of self, the sense of community identity,” Joiner said, “that we all stood to lose by having a statewide agency with no real connection to Lincoln replace our own fire department and firefighters who put themselves on the line every day for their friends and neighbors.”

Joiner’s retort to Chief Harris was quiet and respectful but cut to the heart of what both City Council members and many concerned citizens in the audience feared: a loss of personalized service, a loss of heart that’s so important in the best of a small town’s relationship with its police and firefighters.

Lincoln Fire Chief Mike Davis said that he wanted “to personally thank Chief Harris” for working with the city to evaluate public-safety services.

“They spent quite a bit of staff time to help us out,” Davis said.

Next came the pros and the cons, the reports and the arguments. Private citizens came to the microphone to tell their stories in support of police and firefighters.

Diane Balda told how she awoke with a heart problem and called 9-1-1.

Within five minutes, firefighters arrived and “Jake and his crew” were helping her, according to Balda.

“As soon as I saw those young men, I knew everything would be OK,” Balda said. “Now I think of our firefighters as 21 of my new sons,” she added.

Evan Faddis, president of the Professional Firefighters Union, had a response to Balda’s statements.

“What she said came from the heart,” Faddis said. “To be able to hear how we touched someone’s life — it couldn’t get any better.”

Loren Quinn, who oversees city afterschool programs, had the audience in tears when she told the story of how Lincoln firefighters saved the life of her 1-year-old daughter. “When your child stops breathing,” she said, “you don’t want to wait too long for help. Our firefighters are an amazing part of our community.”

Aaron Bjorgum, vice president of the Professional Firefighters Union said that just hearing the support and the stories (at the meeting) made him “feel good” about his job.

Finally, the meeting took the turn that everyone had been waiting for. As each council member voted to keep services local, the audience clapped and cheered.

“It was clearly obvious that the community was in support of keeping public-safety services local and the numbers (in the contract proposals) weren’t there for savings,” said Lincoln Mayor Stan Nader.

“But the exercise we went through with having the Sheriff’s Department and Cal Fire submit proposals did help our existing staff focus on ways they might be more efficient,” Nader said.

Paul Shelgren, outgoing interim police chief, said that the council’s vote to keep police and fire services in house was the best option for the city and the community.

“It was a strong, clear message of support and confidence from our council members to the members of the police department,” Shelgren said.

Even under recent difficult economic conditions, Shelgren said, the city of Lincoln has run an efficient, cost effective police department with “the most dedicated and hard-working staff that you could ask for.”

Another agenda item concerned Lincoln’s mid-year budget: a proposed $12,380,586 with a budget surplus of $80,314.

Councilman Spencer Short said that the original budget adopted in June 2012 was conservative.

“The good news here is that the city’s weathering the financial storm well and that we’ll continue to budget very conservatively for the coming years,” Short said Wednesday.