Rob Douglas' column appears Fridays in the Steamboat Today. He can be reached at rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.
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If we’ve reached the point where a former firefighter from the most esteemed fire department in the world feels it’s appropriate to publicly proclaim his hope that the homes of elected representatives in his adopted hometown will burn to the ground — because those part-time citizen legislators dared to question the local fire department budget — then perhaps we are past the point of no return as a civil society.
That is not a hypothetical statement. That is an accurate description of a comment placed on the Steamboat Today Web forum by Kevin Nerney, a former New York City Fire Department firefighter who lives in Steamboat Springs.
Nerney’s comment was in response to the newspaper’s article, “Steamboat Springs City Council receptive to pay raises for firefighters,” recounting discussions Tuesday evening by the City Council concerning salaries and other costs associated with the Steamboat Springs Fire Department. After providing the context of the discussion, salary information and the fact that several council members favored providing raises for Steamboat firefighters as a means to prevent turnover, the article contained the following two paragraphs summarizing questions raised about the approximately four-fold increase in overall costs to taxpayers for fire and emergency medical services throughout the past 10 years.
“But other council members were concerned by how expensive funding fire and ambulance services has become since the department transitioned from a volunteer service in 2001 to a city-funded professional force in 2002.
Council members Cari Hermacinski and Bart Kounovsky questioned what was being done to address the ‘exploding cost’ of the fire department over the last decade.”
Evidently, the fact that Kounovsky and Hermacinski asked questions designed to obtain an understanding of why fire and emergency medical services costs have grown so quickly and what might be done to prevent future unsustainable increases — questions that any competent elected representative should ask — set Nerney off, as reflected by the following comment he placed on the newspaper’s forum:
“44 thousand? shoot that was starting salary back in NY in the middle 90’s. Time to get with the program Steamboat. Council members Cari Hermacinski and Bart Kounovsky questioned what was being done to address the ‘exploding cost’ of the fire department over the last decade. I hope if either of your houses catch on fire the boys are busy trying to (save) costs by not putting fuel in the trucks and can’t make it to put it out. 23 full time Firefighters is not nearly enough protection for 30,000 residents when ski season is in full swing. Sept. 11 is quickly approaching — take a moment to reflect and remember.”
Nerney’s irresponsible statement about his “hope” that our local firefighters would make an excuse to not respond to a fire at the homes of two elected representatives, who both have children, is beyond the bounds of decency.
Nerney is not just any reader making an inflammatory statement on a newspaper Web forum. He is a former professional firefighter from the world’s premier fire department — a department that Steamboat Springs firefighters probably revere. Nerney has been quoted repeatedly in the Steamboat Today based on his experience as a New York City firefighter. For Nerney to suggest, even in jest, to our local firefighters that it is appropriate to consider whether to respond to a call for emergency services from a public official based upon how that public official has conducted oversight of the fire department is reprehensible. While those types of not-so-thinly veiled threats against elected officials trying to deal with difficult budgets are on the rise across the country, they have no place in Steamboat Springs.
Hopefully, this was a one-off rash statement by Nerney that he will find the maturity and grace to apologize for so that it does not cast a shadow on himself and his former department. We all make intemperate statements when it comes to issues we care about deeply. But, if we want citizens in small communities like Steamboat to step forward and grapple with increasingly difficult issues, we must never use the safety of their families’ lives as leverage as they perform their official duties.
Since 1998, Steamboat resident Rob Douglas has been a commentator on local, state and national politics in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Colorado. To reach Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com.