Pointing to a startling about-face over Staten Island's Rossville fire station, one of Mayor Bloomberg's Republican challengers, Thomas Ognibene, has accused the mayor of sacrificing public safety on the altar of campaign politics.
Mr. Ognibene's complaint comes after last week's announcement by the Fire Department that the station, which had been occupied only by an ambulance unit since it opened in February 2004, would be staffed by an engine company.
The decision ends a two-year campaign by two Staten Island Republican members of the City Council, Andrew Lanza and James Oddo, to get the station fully staffed. The Fire Department, under Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta, consistently responded by saying the city did not have the financial resources to procure an engine company, Mr. Oddo said. Barely a month before the decision to assign the engine company, a Fire Department official wrote the council members that no such move was warranted or affordable.
Given the timing, the mayor's move has been identified as an election-year ploy by those pushing for the Rossville station and by the council speaker, Gifford Miller, one of the four Democratic candidates for mayor.
The station was promised for Staten Island's South Shore area in 2000 by Mayor Giuliani following lobbying efforts by residents there, who cited the area's surging population and lagging response times. In 2003, however, Mr. Bloomberg closed six firehouses in Brooklyn and Queens and said the city lacked the resources to staff the Rossville station with an engine company.
The situation on Staten Island assumed a higher profile on March 7, when a three-alarm fire gutted four homes within blocks of the Rossville station. One building collapsed and, while no one was killed, the blaze raised concerns about the consequences - both political and safety-related - of not staffing the Rossville station. It prompted the Fire Department to review response times in the South Shore area, the deputy commissioner for public affairs, Francis Gribbon, said.
As a result, "a week or a few days" before the May 16 announcement, Mr. Gribbon said, Mr. Scoppetta urged the mayor to staff the Rossville station, based on recommendations from Staten Island officials.
As the Daily News reported last week, in response to allegations that the decision was driven by election-year political concerns, a spokesman for the mayor, Robert Lawson, said: "We're going on the recommendations of the Fire Department. The mayor is not playing politics with public safety."
Yet just weeks before the mayor's change of heart, the Fire Department was still maintaining that there was no need to staff the Rossville station.
In a letter to Messrs. Oddo and Lanza dated April 14, the deputy fire commissioner for inter-governmental affairs, Daniel Shacknai, wrote: "... the Department believes that response times on Staten Island do not warrant redeployment of resources to the Rossville facility at this time. Given the current level of Staten Island response times and the need for continued financial restraint on the part of all city agencies, the Department is unable to redeploy fire resources to the Rossville facility."
Given that the Bloomberg administration had maintained that staffing the Rossville station was unnecessary for two years, even through mid-April - more than a month after the fire that purportedly prompted the department's reassessment of the South Shore's needs - the change surprised Mr. Oddo.
While happy with the decision to place an engine company at the station, the council Republican leader said he thinks Mr. Bloomberg's reversal was driven by political motivations.
"I can't explain it, frankly," Mr. Oddo said.
Mr. Gribbon said that the decision to staff the Rossville station was made as a result of rising response times, which he said "crept over seven minutes" in the weeks preceding Mr. Bloomberg's announcement. The department, he said, calculates averages on a yearly and monthly basis but is constantly monitoring response times.
Mr. Gribbon said he could not provide response-time data specific to the South Shore, pointing instead to statistics for Richmond County posted on the department's Web site.
According to those numbers, however, average response times for Staten Island for the month of April - while generally higher than in the other boroughs, given Staten Island's comparative sprawl - were all beneath seven minutes, and the average response time for structural fires was four minutes, 51 seconds.
In light of the unanswered questions surrounding the firehouse, to Mr. Ognibene the about-face can be explained only by politics.
Mr. Ognibene said that because he is preparing to collect signatures during the primary petitioning process, which begins next month, the mayor felt the need to shore up his Republican base in Staten Island. The former councilman seeks to wrest the Republican nomination from Mr. Bloomberg in the September 13 primary contest and has pledged to run on the Conservative Party line all the way through the general election in November.
Mr. Ognibene called on the Fire Department to release the data that prompted Mr. Scoppetta to staff the Rossville station. He also said he doubted that a significant statistical difference in the span of three weeks prompted the reversal of a position the Bloomberg administration had clung to for two years.
"The point is that we all know it's a lie. We all know what it's done for," Mr. Ognibene said.
He also expressed concern that, since Mr. Bloomberg's decision was made of convenience, if there is a budget shortfall next year under a Bloomberg administration, the Rossville station would be among the first cuts, having served its temporary political purpose.
In addition, Mr. Ognibene accused Mr. Bloomberg of jeopardizing the safety of the communities in Brooklyn and Queens that lost fire stations in the 2003 cuts but, unlike Staten Island, had not had staff redeployed - because, the candidate said, they are not as essential politically to the mayor.
A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg, Edward Skyler, said: "We don't play politics with public safety."