Mayor Stothert holds fire budget to $90.6 million - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, July 23, 2013 at 2:00 pm / Updated at 1:32 pm
Mayor Stothert holds fire budget to $90.6 million

Mayor Jean Stothert is sticking to her plan to give $90.6 million of next year's general fund budget to the Fire Department — and no more.

The mayor's fire budget proposal, as promised, would remove rigs from service, lay off and demote firefighters but still deliver $8.2 million in additional funding compared with this year's budget.

Stothert's suggested funding for the Police Department, meanwhile, includes plans to hire new staff to bring the department up to its approved level and to make special equipment purchases.

Collectively, Omaha's public safety agencies make up the bulk of increased spending in next year's budget for basic city operations.

Overall, Stothert proposes to increase the general fund by roughly $18.8 million. That includes some $11 million in additional spending for police and fire — two department with the largest budgets.

Some expenses are tied to a fire union labor contract that the mayor must follow. Other costs are part of Stothert's campaign pledges to boost public safety.

In her campaign, Stothert called for safer streets and additional police officers, while she tangled with fire officials over a labor contract she helped negotiate with a group of City Council members.

She regularly praises Police Chief Todd Schmaderer and his department's willingness to cooperate in developing the 2014 budget. But she makes no secret of her desire to cut Fire Department expenses and replace Fire Chief Mike McDonnell.

The Police Department's proposed $124 million budget for next year includes a roughly $2.9 million bump. There's extra money appropriated to the Police Chief's Office, the criminal investigations bureau, and the budget for rank and file officers.

Stothert said she plans to use lease-purchase bonds to acquire 755 new portable police radios to replace aging equipment and plans to continue a program that replaces worn-out police cruisers.

Money is set aside in another account to pay for a 2 percent police wage increase, and negotiations on a new police contract are set to begin in the coming months. A new recruit class, meant to bring the sworn ranks up to the 804 officers budgeted for this year, is scheduled to begin in the spring.

But Stothert's proposal also slashes about $4.5 million from a police bureau assigned to observe department spending and manage the air support unit.

As for the Fire Department, Stothert describes her $90.6 million general fund budget proposal as a compromise born from weeks of tense exchanges with McDonnell and department officials.

She initially told the Fire Department to come up with an $83 million budget.

McDonnell offered up a roughly $96 million plan, which he eventually cut, by only about $2 million.

Stothert settled on a budget that could include 16 firefighter layoffs, eight demotions and two rigs pulled from service.

The Fire Department currently has 657 sworn staff members, though city finance officials say the number of sworn fire personnel will be capped at 638 next year. As staff retires or leaves the job, some downsizing through attrition is possible.

Stothert said she will move for the department to use outside contractors to operate a paramedic training program that might save a couple hundred thousand dollars.

The mayor and fire officials still differ on the exact fiscal requirements of the latest labor contract. Stothert said she's open to other suggestions to reduce spending, but that her proposed reductions don't violate the contract or reduce public safety.

Fire union officials promise a lawsuit to fight any potential layoffs.

Stothert said the fire budget she's proposed is largely tied to salary increases included in the contract.

“All labor contracts cost money,” Stothert said. “They have salary and benefits in it. You can't have a labor contract that's not going to cost money.”

World-Herald staff writer Erin Golden contributed to this report.

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