The Omaha fire union’s request to block city budget cuts might be premature, a Douglas County District judge said Wednesday.
But after four hours of testimony from Fire Chief Mike McDonnell, union leader Steve LeClair and Battalion Chief Scott Muschall, Judge James Gleason wasn’t ready to reject — or sign off on — a temporary injunction against the city.
The hearing was the latest twist in an ongoing battle between fire officials and Mayor Jean Stothert, who is proposing a budget that would lay off 16 firefighters, lead to eight demotions and pull two rigs from service.
The fire union says those cuts would make it harder for the city to comply with national standards for emergency response times, as required in the fire contract.
In a lawsuit filed last week, the union argued that the mayor is trying to get around the labor contract with an order that says the city will “attempt” to comply with those standards, within budget limitations.
Gleason said he needs time to review the contract and the National Fire Protection Association standards at the center of the debate. He told attorneys for the city and the union that it’s tough to tell exactly what action the union is seeking — and what kind of an impact it would have on the functions of the Fire Department.
“Are you telling me that if that budget, which (Stothert) proposes, doesn’t allow compliance or efforts to comply with (NFPA standards) ... I’ve got to order the mayor to allocate more money to the Fire Department?” he asked.
“It’s certainly possible, judge,” said John Corrigan, the union’s attorney.
Stothert’s budget would increase the Fire Department’s funding by $8.2 million from this year. But at $90.6 million, it comes in short of the $96 million plan McDonnell requested for his department.
The mayor has said that she is open to adjusting particular items, provided that the budget doesn’t move from $90.6 million.
Corrigan said Wednesday that the union opted to file a lawsuit, rather than going through a lengthier grievance process, because it sees the mayor’s actions as an immediate threat to public safety — and a breach of the contract.
“The Mayor’s Office has told the Fire Department and the union: ‘I’m going to propose a budget to be adopted that isn’t going to meet up to the contractual obligations,” he said.
LeClair and Muschall said that adding seconds or minutes to firefighters’ response times could be too much for a critically ill patient or could allow a fire to spread across a building.
Both the union and the city, however, agree that the Fire Department isn’t meeting standards for response times now. It hasn’t been, for at least a year and a half.
Assistant City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch said neither the city nor the union ever expected that the department would meet the NFPA standards all of the time. And he said the contract includes a section noting that budget-related cutbacks could be a reality at some point in the future.
He said city officials and the union have been meeting regularly since January, when the contract was implemented. A real analysis of how the city is doing on response times, he said, won’t come until the end of the year. Until then, he said the city is doing its part to move the department closer to its goals.
“There’s nothing that says it’s going to be an instant fix,” in den Bosch said. “There’s nothing that requires it to be an instant fix. The difficulty, of course, is we’re looking at a budget, which is a short-term thing, and talking about a problem that is response times for a city that is growing, talking about moving fire stations and everything else, which obviously is a long-term fix.”
Gleason, meanwhile, noted a difference between the city weathering ups and downs in the budget and taking actions that would clearly move the city further from established safety standards.
The budget is now in the hands of the City Council, which will hold hearings this month before voting on a final plan. McDonnell, who was previously directed by the mayor to keep quiet on his department’s finances, kept many of his answers short.
The mayor did not attend the hearing, but her chief of staff, Marty Bilek, sat in the back of the courtroom during most of McDonnell’s testimony.
When Corrigan asked whether any of the city’s fire stations could withstand the reduction of a fire engine or medical unit and still remain in compliance with the contract, McDonnell answered with one word: “No.”
And how would Stothert’s proposed budget affect the department’s ability to improve response times?
“It will reduce it,” McDonnell said.