A gray hearse was parked outside Engine Co. 261 in Long Island City Sunday and in its window was a sign that read "Gray hearse or red truck, choose your exit."
That was essentially the message City Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan), Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and a bevy of public officials and community leaders hoped to hammer home to Mayor Michael Bloomberg at Sunday's rally outside the firehouse.
Engine Co. 261 at 37-20 29th St. is among the eight firehouses citywide - and one of two in Queens - slated to be closed as part of the mayor's stripped-down budget. The other is Engine Co. 293 in Woodhaven.
"We are facing difficult times," Miller told the assembled crowd of about 200. "But even in a time of fiscal crisis, you have to find the money for public safety. You cannot compromise on public safety."
Gotbaum seconded the speaker's remarks, calling Engine Co. 261 "a sacred cow."
He outlined a counterproposal the City Council had put together that he said would produce $14 million in savings, without closing any firehouses. The plan, released in early March, calls for improved billing collection at EMS, additional hiring to alleviate overtime, corporate sponsorships of firehouses and layoffs of civilian staffers at FDNY bureaus.
No response has come from the mayor so far, Miller said.
His comments were echoed by Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis), chairman of the council finance committee, who warned against a return to the mid-1970s when cuts in public services reduced the quality of life in the city.
Others who spoke at the roughly hour-long rally tailored their messages specifically to Engine 261 and the area it serves - Dutch Kills, Ravenswood, Queensbridge, Astoria, Woodside and Roosevelt Island.
Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr. (D-Astoria), chairman of the Council's Public Safety Committee, said it was foolish to sacrifice the firefighters who are among the closest to the 59th Street Bridge, LaGuardia Airport and the Citicorp tower, some of the city's most sensitive terrorist targets.
Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) called Long Island City the future of New York City's economic development, and said closing the firehouse would scare off businesses and professionals who see the area as a less-expensive alternative to Manhattan.
"If you were to think of the worst ideas to come out of City Hall, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a worse idea than closing this firehouse," he said.
State Sen. George Onorato (D-Long Island City) and Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) also pledged to support the cause in Albany.
Bloomberg first proposed closing the firehouses in November, but in the face of council opposition he agreed to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to study the issue. That panel decided in early April to approve the mayor's plan.
Steven Cycan, the lone firefighter to speak, said the mayor's assertion that the closings would only add one minute to response times was at odds with his nine years of experience at Engine 261.
"Maybe in a perfect world, on a Sunday morning with no traffic and no other fires going on," he said. The real increase in response time, he said, would be much higher.
"Increased response time does kill," he added. "It's black and white."
But some attending the rally were disappointed that more firefighters, especially higher-ranking officers representing the battalion and the division, did not appear.
"Why shouldn't they be here supporting the troops?" asked Alexander Santora, a retired deputy chief who lost his son Christopher in the Sept. 11 attacks.
His wife, Maureen, suggested that they might be afraid to publicly clash with the mayor.
Holding a sign that read "If your house was burning, would you want to wait another minute, Mr. Mayor?" Maureen Santora said she was not sure that the rally could stop the mayor's plan, but she still held out hope.
"He's a very clever person," she said. "He can find another way to save a dollar."
Just as the rally began to disperse, in what seemed like a fortuitous twist an emergency call came in for Ladder Co. 116, which shares the building with Engine Co. 261.
"116's got to run!" a voice announced over loudspeakers as a fire truck negotiated its way past the crowd and up 29th Street.
Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.
©2003 Community News Group
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