Mayor Jean Stothert and Omaha's fire union president said Monday that the layoffs of 19 firefighters can be avoided — but each said it was the other's job to make that happen.
The layoffs, effective Jan. 4, were formally announced Monday as Omaha Fire Department officials began hand-delivering pink slips. The 19 people set to lose their jobs are all probationary firefighters hired in February.
Stothert said significant cuts are necessary to help balance the Fire Department budget.
Late last week she offered the fire union a proposal: Cut next year's paramedic training program from 48 to 12 members and avoid layoffs through the end of 2014.
On top of that, Stothert said she would promise not to lay off firefighters in 2015 if the department could stay within its $90.6 million budget next year.
Union President Steve LeClair said his group is willing to cut paramedic training in half, with one class of 12 starting in January and another of 12 in December 2014.
But LeClair said the union needs the city to make some assurances of its own.
An agreement the union offered Monday includes a provision that would block the mayor from taking any rigs permanently out of service, with the exception of one medic unit based in South Omaha. In addition, the union wants the mayor to agree not to lay off any firefighters — including the new hires — for the life of the contract.
LeClair said in a statement that the paramedic training reductions would bring the class size down to a level that Stothert approved when she was serving on the Omaha City Council.
“Now, in light of a manufactured budget crisis, Stothert is threatening layoffs that will affect the lives of dedicated public servants and their families, who now hang in the balance,” he said.
Stothert said the budget crunch is real.
Last week her office released projections that show the Fire Department ending 2013 more than $6 million over budget. She said the department has 21 more firefighters than budgeted and that it is within her rights as mayor to drop its ranks to fill a budget gap.
The labor contract between the city and the union, which went into effect Jan. 1, allows the city to lay off firefighters for budgetary reasons — if their numbers don't dip below the size of the staff at the time the contract was approved. With 19 layoffs, the city would have two more firefighters than it did at that time.
Stothert said it's important for the city to retain the ability to make staff cuts in the future.
Even if the union agrees to other cuts, she said, she is not willing to negotiate on layoff protections.
“I am not going to agree to say indefinitely I will not lay off anyone in the Fire Department,” she said. “That's a management right, and I'm not going to give up that right.”
Stothert is blocked from making immediate layoffs because of a contract with departing Chief Mike McDonnell.
The two sparred for months over proposed fire budget reductions before agreeing to a retirement deal. In exchange for McDonnell's retirement Friday — with a $124,000 pension — Stothert said she would not lay off firefighters or take rigs out of service until after Dec. 21.
Stothert said Monday that Interim Chief Bernard Kanger is considering the one exception to that deal: the South Omaha medic unit, which could be pulled out of service at any time.
“It would be up to him to do that,” Stothert said. “That's another cost-saving measure that he is looking at right now.”
The mayor said she will not proceed with the layoffs if the union agrees to her terms before Jan. 4. She said she expects her requests will be answered with a lawsuit.
“We're at an impasse right now, so this is the next step,” she said. “But if they come back and agree, we will rescind them. They don't have to be laid off. So the ball's in their court right now.”
LeClair, however, said he's waiting on Stothert.
“If the mayor is sincere in avoiding the layoffs she has announced, I expect that she will sign the agreement,” he said, adding that firefighters “should not have to undergo the uncertainty and drama occasioned by these political theatrics.”
The layoffs, which will be effective Jan. 4, will involve probationary firefighters hired last February. They were selected based on rankings earned from firefighter entrance exams.
Stothert said she told fire union officials that she would not lay off firefighters if the union cut its 2014 paramedic training class from 48 to 12 members. The mayor also said she would agree to no layoffs through 2015 if the Fire Department stayed within its budget in 2014.
Those deals, she said, were rejected because union leadership was “insisting on an indefinite guarantee of no layoffs.”
Fire union president Steve LeClair said his group has been considering Stothert's proposal since she offered it Wednesday evening.
He said the union is willing to make recommended cuts and agrees that reducing the paramedic training class would “make the budget much more attainable.”
But LeClair said the union needs the city to make some assurances of its own related to staffing in the future.
“We've agreed to give the city the tools for the Fire Department to meet its budget in 2014, and in return, we've asked for something that's been categorically rejected,” he said.
LeClair declined to discuss specific requests the union has made in negotiations.
“I think the compromise has to be on the city's side of the table,” he said. “The union has basically tentatively agreed to everything the city has demanded up until this point.”
Stothert is blocked from making any immediate layoffs because of a contract with departing Chief Mike McDonnell.
In exchange for McDonnell agreeing to retire Nov. 8 with a $124,000 pension, Stothert said she would not lay off firefighters or take any rigs out of service until after Dec. 21.
In a news release Monday afternoon, Stothert said it's possible the planned layoffs could still be avoided.
“With the layoffs not being effective until January, there is still time to avoid them, if the union is willing to come to an agreement,” she said.
Full release from Mayor Jean Stothert