Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Fire chief studies fiscal cuts

Cincinnati department must reduce spending by $2 million before year's end

By Jane Prendergast
Enquirer staff writer

Cincinnati's fire chief has a couple of weeks to figure out how he'll cut almost $2 million from the department's spending by the end of the year.

There's no talk of drastic measures such as closing firehouses or laying off firefighters, but Chief Robert Wrightsaid it's likely his suggestions will be unpopular with firefighters, the public or both.

"I just can't see anything that's going to be nice at this point," he said Monday.

Most of the overspending has been in overtime. The department budgeted about $2 million for it and has already spent $20,000 over that budgeted amount. Wright projects that overtime overspending will grow to more than $1 million by the end of the year.

He attributes the growing overtime costs to contractual issues such as requiring four firefighters on an engine, and to paying extra firefighters to cover for colleagues who are hurt, sick and on military and family leave.

Wright expects the total overspending to be about $1.8 million. After the more than $1 million in overtime, the rest comes from, among other things, rising fleet maintenance costs.

The Fire Department has probably the most expensive fleet of trucks to maintain of any city department, the chief said. He estimated that cost at $300,000.

City Manager Valerie Lemmie has not directed Wright how to cut the money, he said.

But he estimated he and his staff have about two weeks before she's going to want to know what they're going to do about it.

The department's total general-fund budget is $58.3 million.

Mayor Charlie Luken singled out the Fire Department last week in saying that "overspending" by some city departments needed to be put in check. All told, the city manager hopes to save $2.7 million by forcing "budget-balancing efforts" on wayward departments. She did not elaborate.

Safety services have traditionally been held harmless in previous rounds of budget-cutting, with the city even hiring 75 more police officers as other departments faced the threat of layoffs.

Lemmie said the top-to-bottom examination of the department - the result of the yearlong investigation into the death of Firefighter Oscar Armstrong III at a Bond Hill house fire last year - would continue. She has said that could cost $500,000.

Doug Stern, spokesman for the firefighters union, said Local 48 will be watching for Wright's plan and will oppose any effort to close firehouses, even temporarily. Wright said some cities do what they call "browning out" fire companies, meaning that a firehouse is closed for a day. That, Stern said, just puts neighborhoods in jeopardy.

"To be honest, we've already run thin for the last several years," Stern said of the 800-firefighter department's staffing level. "I don't know where the chief's going to find something to cut."

Wright said he didn't know either. "There are some issues where we can probably do something," the chief said. "But what that is, I truly don't know."


Gregory Korte contributed to this report. E-mail jprendergast@enquirer.com

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