CITY HALL UPDATE // Effort to temporarily save 10 firefighter jobs gets vetoed

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August 29, 2011
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter
Mayor R.T. Rybak on Aug. 19 vetoed a City Council action that would have temporarily saved the jobs of 10 Minneapolis firefighters who were laid off after the city was forced to make cuts to its budget following a reduction in state aid.

It was Rybak’s first veto since December and it came a few hours after an emotional debate in the Council Chambers, where some of the 10 firefighters who were put on notice sat in the first row wearing red T-shits with “R.T. Rybak Fired Me” written on the front.

Rybak’s veto means that, beginning on Sept. 14, the Fire Department will be down to 387 firefighters and may have to close fire stations on a rotating basis because of short staffing.

Fire Chief Alex Jackson identified four stations that will be closed on a rotating basis in the event that fewer than 93 firefighters show up for work on a given day.  

That list includes Station 22, which is near the intersection of Lake Street and Excelsior Boulevard and houses not only a fire engine, but also a rescue boat for the Chain of Lakes. The Fire Department has other rescue boats, but they’re at stations in North Minneapolis and near Lake Nokomis.  

Jackson is hopeful that some of the roughly 15 firefighters dealing with long-term injuries will come back soon and he won’t have to implement rolling closures of the four stations. But if they remain injured, he expects the Fire Department to close stations on 78 days between Sept. 14 and the end of they year.

Along with Station 22, three other engines will be in the rotation: Station 2 at 143 13th Ave. NE; Station 21 at 3209 E. 38th St.; and Station 19 at 200 SE Ontario St.

Jackson said the department will try to split closures evenly between the four stations, but it might not shake out that way depending upon demand.

When the stations are closed, the surrounding neighborhoods will have to be serviced by nearby fire stations, which will slow response times.

Jackson will not have the ability to use overtime to plug staffing shortfalls. The City Council voted to repeal the city’s “Standard of Coverage,” which it passed in 2005 and required the Fire Department to have a minimum of 96 firefighters on duty at all times.

The department’s overtime budget was a hot issue during the debate. As of August, firefighters had accumulated $700,000 in overtime — an all-time record pace that, if continued, would total $1 million by the end of a year. Jackson said the overtime is the result of an unusual number of injured firefighters in 2011.

The effort to keep the 10 firefighters on the job was led by council members Sandy Colvin Roy (Ward 12) and Gary Schiff (Ward 9). They introduced a plan to take $300,000 in savings from city positions that were vacant for part of the years and plug that money into the fire budget. It was a one-time cash infusion that would not have promised the firefighters their jobs in 2012.

The cuts could have been steeper. When the city calculated how much it lost in state aid in July, it figured it would need to cut 44 firefighters to make up the difference. But Rybak proposed a one-time, $1.1 million transfer from the city’s contingency funds.

Firefighters Union Local 82 President Mark Lakosky praised the council’s efforts and hoped Rybak would consider cutting the Civil Rights and Public Health department, which he said provide services that the state and county provide.

“He’s ready to lay off firefighters, and won’t even look at these duplication of services,” Lakosky said.

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