Mayor-elect Jean Stothert might eliminate a recent batch of firefighter recruits to address the Fire Department's spending for the rest of this year.
The city needs to examine whether it needs the additional firefighters and evaluate its options, Stothert said Tuesday, reigniting the fire contract debates of her mayoral campaign.
Amid the campaign, Fire Chief Mike McDonnell blamed a new fire contract for causing an $8.6 million shortfall in the Fire Department's budget.
“I'm not going to look at it as a shortfall right now because I have six more months this year to balance that budget, and I'll balance the budget,” the mayor-elect said Tuesday. “But when you hire that many firefighters, it's going to cost you an overage in our budget.”
Stothert, who wants new leadership in the Fire Department, also criticized fire officials for hiring the additional recruits.
“I don't think it was wise that we hired that many firefighters in 2013 after the budget was set,” she said.
McDonnell, in a statement, said much of the department's costs are fixed.
“Ninety-eight percent of the Omaha Fire Department's budget is directly or indirectly mandated by the fire union contract,” McDonnell said. “We are always looking at cost savings without reducing public safety.”
Earlier this year, Mayor Jim Suttle announced that a recruit class of roughly 40 firefighters would begin training to offset retirements and new costs associated with the fire contract, mostly related to mandatory paramedic training. The class would help reduce projected overtime costs next year by about $1 million, the mayor said.
Fire officials said the recruit class, which graduated last month, brought the Fire Department ranks to 652 firefighters. The new firefighters was each to be paid just under $50,000 annually.
“Those are the things we've got to look at, do we need 47 more firefighters?” Stothert said. “And although it is in the contract, we need to see what we can do with that class potentially — if we can move it later, or train those paramedics without the additional staff.”
Suttle predicted the contract would create a shortfall as he signed it.
In an April letter to the City Council, McDonnell wrote that the contract “significantly altered projected costs due to changes in wages, benefits, and additional obligations; however, the Fire Department budget remained set at 70.5 million dollars.”
McDonnell asked the council to transfer an additional $5.3 million into the department's budget — which the council declined to do.
Steve LeClair, head of the city's fire union, said Tuesday that laying off firefighters could violate the labor contract and “make no fiscal sense” because of the contract's mandates.
“We don't feel it's in the interest of the taxpayers or public safety to start off by violating our contract,” LeClair said in a statement. “We look forward to speaking with any city official about the meaning of our agreement to avoid unnecessary litigation and expense.”
Stothert said she won't compromise public safety and will provide good city services.
“That's what the taxpayers expect with their tax dollars,” she said.
Stothert said it was still too early to transfer more money into the department's budget.
“You don't just move $5 million into somebody's account halfway through the year because they say they're short,” Stothert said. “You tell 'em to work on their budget and try to curb their spending.”
Contact the writer: