A Penticton businessman is pledging $5,000 to help maintain the city's fire services at what he considers to be an adequate level.
In approving its 2014 budget, city council chose not to replace two retiring firefighters as a cost-saving measure.
David Prystay, general manager of the Penticton Lakeside Resort, says if the city is unwilling to reconsider, he will pledge $5,000 annually toward maintaining the two positions. The outspoken hotelier and bar owner challenged the business community to step to the plate.
"The first responders are the lifeline to our community," Prystay said in an interview. "Police, fire and ambulance are a necessity and something we cannot live without. One small disaster and people will suffer. When you look at any major disaster in Canada or in the rest of the world, it's the firefighters who are saving people, not our politicians."
Council approved its 2014 budget just prior to Christmas. Cutting two firefighting positions will save the municipality about $150,000, but the move contradicts the fire department's core service review, which doesn't call for a reduction in staff.
"Council has taken a look and they've noticed with 30 firefighters (rather than the previous 32), the operations have continued for the past several months," Mayor Garry Litke said during budget deliberations last month.
The issue has dominated letters to the editor of the Penticton Herald and the newspaper's social media sites, with some people writing in favour of the staffing reduction and others against it. Prystay is the first high-profile business person to speak out.
"If we have a big fire going on somewhere and we don't have enough members to respond, the whole city will pay," he said. "When someone slips and falls, it's quite often the firefighters who arrive first due to proximity of fire halls and because police will be busy on other calls."
Prystay, a former Vancouver police officer, dismisses the suggestion that more auxiliary reserve members could be used to save money.
"Reserves are a definite attribute to the service, but we need the full-time employees to make sure that our city is safe. If we can't keep the two positions, I'd pledge $5,000 annually and ask the business community to help out."
In agreement is David Perry, a local real estate agent and former mayor, councillor and school trustee in Penticton.
"As a former emergency services officer himself, Mr. Prystay knows first-hand just how important such services are to his fellow citizens," Perry said.
Perry said reviewing fire operations is nothing new, noting the city council of 2002-05 recognized the importance of Workers' Compensation Board requirements that called for a minimum level of responding firefighters.
"It is one thing not to hire additional firefighters, but not to replace a retiring complement is foolhardy. All we need is another motel or hotel fire to have lives placed at risk both inside the structure and among the responding crew. To suggest that operations appear to have been going smoothly with a smaller complement when we have not had a major fire to contend with sings of a 'head in the sand' approach.
"What's next for this council - a proposed cut to RCMP because the crime rate has been down for six months?"
Gord Wylie, a resident of Penticton since 1965, also disagrees with council's decision.
"It's crazy," said Wylie when stopped on the street for comment.
"We're talking about the lives of people. I don't care about fixing up this street or the walkway. Public safety should be foremost in the community. In a community that's very oriented to retirees and seniors, these are the people that require these services more than anyone."