Mayor Stothert removes budget muzzle from Omaha city officials -
Published Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:05 am
Mayor Stothert removes budget muzzle from Omaha city officials

Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said Wednesday that Fire Chief Mike McDonnell and other city officials are free to publicly discuss their budgets — lifting a directive she imposed last month to clear all budget and public safety talk in advance with her office.

“She verbally gave permission'' this week to department directors, said Carrie Murphy, mayoral spokeswoman.

Stothert also told a public forum in Millard what her plans are for fire spending in 2014.

McDonnell, who has a tense relationship with the mayor, declined to comment Wednesday night until he receives written notice that Stothert's directive was rescinded.

Stothert said he won't be getting it in writing.

“McDonnell needs to act like a city department director and stop playing games,” she said. “No other director needs approval in writing.”

Murphy said Stothert, who has said she wants her administration speaking with one voice, lifted the order on discussing the budget because the process of preparing her spending plan was complete.

Stothert signaled what she intends to propose on the fire budget next week, when the 2014 budget is formally presented to the City Council.

In order to limit department spending to $90.6 million next year, Stothert will propose:

Removing two fire rigs from service.

Laying off 16 firefighters.

Demoting eight staffers.

Lowering the number of workers assigned to the main office.

Returning others to regular firefighting duty.

Eliminating three assistant fire chiefs and an assistant fire marshal.

Stothert's spending proposal does not include an agreement with the fire union to soften a contractually required paramedic training program.

Any changes to that program, which sits at the center of heated debate on fire spending, would require union approval.

The potential layoffs and other cost-cutting moves proposed by Stothert would violate the labor contract and spark a court battle, fire union President Steve LeClair has said.

But the mayor is confident her proposal lies within her authority and will not undermine public safety.

Stothert also considered but apparently has rejected a separate proposal for an $88.7 million fire budget that would have terminated 27 firefighters and removed four rigs from service, among other cuts. Stothert has described this as “the most severe” option.

The union contract protects most fire 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.

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 labor contract, potentially limiting Stothert's options to find big savings without eliminating employees.

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