On Sept. 24, 45 firefighters packed into Minneapolis City Hall clad in bright gold shirts that read “No firefighter layoffs.”
Though the City Council meeting that day had nothing to do with fire department cuts, Mark LaKosky, president of the firefighters union, said it was about making the firefighters’ presence known.
The gathering was “spur of the moment” and comes before Wednesday’s Ways and Means/Budget Committee meeting to discuss firefighting budgets, LaKosky said.
The union and the city have been bantering back and forth on cuts to public safety resources.
LaKosky said even the best-case scenario means losing dozens of jobs; under the budget proposal by Mayor R.T. Rybak, at least 32 positions would be cut from the fire department if the city receives full local government aid from the state. Should that amount fall short, the number of jobs lost could be as high as 40.
“I’m just really tired of hearing the mayor say he’s funding public safety, because he’s not,” LaKosky said.
While the department will lose money, Rybak maintains that his budget would not cut firefighter jobs. Instead, the city will offer them a retirement incentive.
The retirement incentive offers $25,000 to a firefighter who takes the option, John Stiles, Rybak’s communication director, said.
“Firefighters are worried [about cuts] … so am I,” Rybak said.
Many of the problems with cuts to public safety can be attributed to cuts to local government aid, said Senator Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.
Dibble, a member of the taxes committee, said that in recent years, cities have faced strained relationships with the state as they attempt to secure funding. He blamed cuts to public safety on Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s “no new taxes pledge.”
Dibble would not comment on whether the city should take resources from other areas to go toward public safety.
“The question is: Are we going to try to micromanage … the mayor’s budget?” he said. “We won’t do that.”
The best way to fund the fire department is to use money the city already has, LaKosky said.
The city maintains a 15 percent cushion in addition to its general budget for emergencies. This year, that amount is about 18.5 percent.
Stiles said the extra money, best described as a “fund balance” rather than a cushion, can be used in the event that the state makes cuts to city aid in the middle of the year, he said.
He said the extra fund exists “because it’s a very good practice.”
A stretched staff
Minneapolis firefighters say they are burdened with extra duties that take away from their primary job: protecting Minneapolis residents.
Starting in October, firefighters will have to return to the scene of a fire and board up the building’s remains, a practice that would take time away from their ability to perform more important duties, he said.
In addition, places like Target Field or the Minneapolis Convention Center require a firefighter on the scene.
“[A firefighter] will go to every Twins game because if they hit a home run, they shoot the fireworks off,” LaKosky said.
When a fire emergency is called from the city of Richfield, firefighters from Station 28, which is southwest of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, are automatically also are called to the scene, LaKosky said.
When this happens “you’re leaving some of the highest tax-paying homeowners pretty much without [fire protection],” he said.
Rybak said the situation with Richfield is a concern, but that it is not as catastrophic of a situation as described by LaKosky.
“It is not ideal,” Rybak said. “But it is a step in the right direction for sharing services regionally.”
He said the practice of sending Minneapolis firefighters to Richfield calls has prompted Richfield to bolster the number of firefighters available to help in Minneapolis fires.
Performing below standards
While Rybak said the fire department is “extraordinary,” LaKosky insists that its performance could be better.
About 86 percent of emergencies are responded to in five minutes or less, and 14 firefighters have been at the scene of a fire in nine minutes or less in 92 percent of calls.
But those stats do not meet the standards of the National Fire Protection Agency, a fire prevention advocacy group. LaKosky said he wants to see funding for the department rise to a level that helps it meet NFPA standards.
Rybak acknowledges the room for improvement.
“We want to do even better than that,” he said.
While NFPA recommends that four firefighters ride on each rig, Minneapolis firefighters ride only three to a rig, LaKosky said.
“Do you want four people doing CPR or do you want three?” LaKosky said. “It’s chaotic.”