Mayor Jean Stothert is ready to lay off firefighters and idle firetrucks and ambulances to rein in next year's Omaha Fire Department budget.
Stothert says such cost-cutting measures would be needed to balance the 2014 city budget. She said she is unwilling to spend more than $90.6 million on the fire budget, which is about $3.2 million less than the latest proposal from Fire Chief Mike McDonnell.
“I am not raising property taxes just to fund the Fire Department,” Stothert told The World-Herald last week. “It's not going to happen.”
But Stothert still is certain to spend millions more on the department than she had planned, largely because of the requirements of the fire labor union contract she helped negotiate.
“It's an admission that this contract costs money,” fire union President Steve LeClair said.
Stothert's potential layoffs and other cost-cutting moves would violate the labor union contract and spark a court battle, LeClair said.
Stothert is confident her proposals lie within her authority and will not undermine public safety.
However, she also hopes to open talks with the fire union to soften a costly, contractually required paramedic training program. Any changes to the program, which sits at the center of a heated debate over the department's spending, would require union approval.
The mayor is working this month to complete her 2014 budget proposal. She expects to spend about $340 million on the city's general fund, with no change in the property tax rate.
Stothert spoke about her plans for the Fire Department budget after The World-Herald obtained a copy of her layoff proposals, which include:
» An $88.7 million budget that would terminate 27 firefighters, demote eight other staffers, remove a total of four fire rigs from service, lower the number of personnel assigned to the department's main office and return others to regular firefighting duties, and remove three assistant fire chief positions and one assistant fire marshal. Stothert described this as “the most severe” option.
» A $90.6 million budget that would lay off 16 firefighters, cut the paramedic training program in half, pull one medic unit out of service, and make the other suggested demotions, reductions and reassignments. Stothert prefers this proposal.
The union contract protects most employees from layoffs, but Stothert said the city can still get rid of some of the latest hires who qualify as probationary employees.
Omaha has roughly 650 firefighters on the job, up from close to 630 at the beginning of the year.
Stothert said she would consider other ideas from fire officials that meet her current $90.6 million target.
“In my opinion, we're being generous with what we're giving them,” Stothert said. “But they need to work with us.”
The Fire Department was expected to spend about $91 million in 2013, according to one projection this year. That was well above Stothert's initial $83 million target for next year's fire spending, which she set after taking office in June.
Many of the department's expenses are linked to wages and benefits required under the fire union labor contract, potentially limiting Stothert's options to find big savings without eliminating employees.
“That contract does bind you to a lot,” Stothert said.
For example, the city has agreed to increased contributions for employee pensions and a 2.9 percent wage increase next year.
Contract language also largely obligates the city to four firefighters on engines and trucks. It calls for the department to keep a minimum of 37 people working in its main office.
The city does have authority to take rigs out of service to save money, but it must consider a series of national firefighting guidelines on best practices when doing so.
“In an effort to induce us to take the concessions that we made in terms of pension and health care, they conceded some of their management prerogatives,” LeClair said of Stothert and other City Council members who led negotiations on a new contract. “They needed the deal badly for political reasons.”
One divisive provision requires the city to regularly detach groups of 24 firefighters from their normal duties so they can complete a paramedic training course.
To cover their shifts without paying a lot of overtime — and to replace retiring firefighters — then-Mayor Jim Suttle's administration hired about 40 firefighters this year. Stothert said that was a poor decision that made “no fiscal sense.”
“That sounds like fiscal mismanagement to me,” added Stothert, who has made no secret of her desire to replace McDonnell.
Stothert said the paramedic training class is the “primary source” of Fire Department overspending. She said McDonnell pushed for the training class to be added to the contract.
“This was an initiative that (fire) management wanted and pushed,” she said. “And we were led to believe that (McDonnell) would do this extra class under the confines of the budget that we had given him.”
McDonnell, per a recent directive from the Mayor's Office, is barred from commenting on the budget.
LeClair said the union was open to discussing changes to department operations, including the paramedic training requirements, to avoid layoffs. But the union will likely want something in exchange for a deal.