WILKES-BARRE – City Council members Thursday night heard about life-and-death from a man who, by his own admission, shouldn't have been sitting before them.
George Sterbinsky recalled his two heart attacks on July and the quick responses by city fire emergency medical technicians to revive him.
He sat before council with laid-off firefighter Jim Zaremba as a flesh-and-blood example of the services the fire department provides daily and to back up the department's argument the cuts made by Mayor Tom Leighton earlier this month jeopardize lives and public safety.
Leighton laid off 11 firefighters on Dec. 1 until the end the year in an effort to make up for an estimated $2 million revenue shortfall. The cuts could be extended into next year if city employees don't agree to concessions in order to reduce the 30-mill property tax increase the mayor's proposed $45.8 million balanced budget contains.
The mayor was sick and did not attend the last regularly scheduled council meeting for the year.
Council has until the end of the year to approve a budget, and if it fails to act on it, the mayor's proposed budget will go into effect.
Sterbinsky, 61, told council members it took the EMTs three minutes to get to his Wilcox Drive house between the time he went into cardiac arrest and when his wife called Luzerne County 911 the morning of July 8.
By then I think I was dead, Sterbinsky said.
He suffered another heart attack on July 27 while going to work, and again the EMTs came to his aid after his wife called 911.
Without these firemen I would be dead today, Sterbinsky said.
He thanked them and said the city should find other ways rather than cutting firefighters and EMTs to save money.
The more than 50 people packed into the fourth-floor council chamber at City Hall, many of them firefighters from the city and other departments across the state who rallied to support the department, applauded Sterbinsky.
Zaremba pointed out Sterbinsky, who choked up at the end of reading his statement, left out an important detail.
He said he wants to thank everyone from the bottom of his heart for everything they did because he now knows his first grandchild born on Nov. 1, Zaremba said.
July 8 turned out to be a busy day for city firefighters and EMTs who answered 39 calls that day. In addition, five outside ambulances responded to calls, Zaremba explained. Had Sterbinsky suffered a heart attack at any other time than that morning the outcome would be very different, Zaremba added.
We do a lot more than put out fires. Just ask Mr. Sterbinsky, Zaremba said.
Retired fire Capt. John Kittrick stressed the importance of manpower and timing when responding to a fire. He told about being the first on the scene in a fire engine, hooking a hose to a hydrant and having a neighbor turn it on as he entered a burning building on North Street where five children died on Christmas Eve years ago.
It's not right. You're gambling with people's lives, he said of the cuts.
Art Martynuska of Johnstown, the president of the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association, who joined the city firefighters represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 104, offered council the help of his organization.
We're willing to come in and sit down and do whatever we can to help you bring these guys back to work, Martynuska said.
Before hearing from the firefighters and other residents, council, by a 5-0 vote, approved the second and final reading of ordinances to increase the price of garbage bags, recycling fees and the cost of meter parking, as part of the revenue increases proposed in the mayor's 2013 budget.
The lone dissent came from non-voting junior council member Jerry Ryan, a senior and class president of Coughlin High School.
I think we should vote no because it would be a burden on the garbage bag increase, Ryan said. The fee increases the cost of a bag by 25 cents and hikes a five-pack to $10. It would raise an estimated $80,000 in additional revenue for the city.
Ryan received applause from the audience and one person shouted, Run for mayor kid.