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Burned by budget deficits, Moline slashes fire department funding

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Opponents say trying to save money, by limiting the availability of firefighters, is a strategy that could hurt the city of Moline, Illinois, but the city administrator says they have no choice.

Each of Moline’s four fire stations is equipped with one fire engine. The city began using so-called “brownouts” in late 2014, taking one of their four fire engines out of service each day.

The system was put in place to save money by limiting overtime for firefighters, but some say it’s a dangerous gamble.

"It creates a situation where we are short-staffed, so we have to ask other cities to come in and help us out, and now we're working with individuals we don't know,” said Moline firefighter Steve Regenwether. “It complicates the fire scene.”

It can also delay response times. For example, the first firefighters to arrive at the scene of March 30, 2015 garage fire were not from the nearby Moline fire station, they were from the East Moline Fire Department.Garage fire in Moline

"They had to come down here to Central Station’s territory for an EMS call. While they were here, a structure fire developed in their territory and there was nobody there to fight it," Regenwether said. "Four or five minutes is a long time. A fire uninterrupted will double in size every minute. So, after five minutes, you can imagine how much more dangerous that can become.”

City officials say they don’t like it, either, but they don’t have the money to pay the estimated $700,000 in overtime to firefighters.

"We've had very difficult budgets for the last seven years. Most of the budgets have been over a million-dollar deficits we've had to balance. We have lost 45 positions in the city since 2008," said Moline City Administrator Lew Steinbrecher.

Moline City Administrator Lew SteinbrecherIt's either cut overtime, raise property taxes or cut other services, Steinbrecher said.

"Do you want to close the library? You know, do we close parks and sell parks? Do we not plow the streets in the winter time when it snows? I mean, there's always choices," said Steinbrecher.

Others argue the risk isn't worth the reward.

"My belief is, city administration has been rolling the dice six months now and they have, luckily, won,” Regenwether said, “But it only takes one, and one’s too many.”Moline firefighters

With four firefighters off the job for injury, Moline is still paying overtime to other firefighters. The city was working to hire another firefighter to help ease the staffing shortage, Steinbrecher said.