Moving toward a direct confrontation with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the Baltimore City Council unanimously gave final passage yesterday to a bill to require four-person crews on city fire engines, a bill the mayor promised last week he would veto.
In passing the bill, council members sided with fire union officials, who had argued that public safety was threatened by smaller crews because they were less effective in fighting a fire in the critical moments before arrival of a backup unit.
"People didn't want to be responsible for having an engine pull up and watching a house burn down while a crew member struggles with a hose," Council President Mary Pat Clarke said after the vote. "Seconds really count, and this council really feels it's a public safety issue that we need to stand up and legislate."
Earlier this year, fire officials for a while began resorting to three-member fire engine crews when a contract-mandated reduction in the firefighter workweek last June led to manpower shortages, confronting fire officials with the prospect of having to pay as much as $750,000 per month in overtime or deploy smaller crews.
Last week, the mayor sought to head off passage of the minimum staffing bill by asserting that the bill would infringe on the powers of the fire chief to deal with temporary manpower shortages.
The mayor tried to make it easier for council members to vote against the minimum staffing requirement by ordering that fire engines be staffed with at least four crew members whenever possible beginning next month.
But the bill had already gained momentum on the council by last week, with some members said to be wary of appearing to risk public safety as they prepared to run for re-election next year. In fact, the bill that passed yesterday is more restrictive than the version that drew the mayor's ire last week, in that it will mandate four-member crews on both pumper trucks and ladder trucks, rather than on pumper trucks alone.
The bill will automatically become law unless the mayor vetoes it before the council has another five meetings. Should the mayor veto the bill, the council would have to assemble 15 votes for an override.
Yesterday's council meeting did not have only bad news for the mayor, however.
Council members turned back an attempt to schedule a hearing for a bill that would have brought an early end to the city's tax on beverage containers. The delay hurts the chances that the bill will pass.
Councilman Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, who introduced the bill last week, has said the tax must be eliminated by Dec. 31 when a similar tax is due to expire in Baltimore County, so that beverage dealers in the city would not lose business because of cheaper prices across the county line.
Mayor Schmoke has opposed the bill, saying the city needs the roughly $6 million per year the tax is expected to generate to help balance the city's battered fiscal budget.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Clarke and Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd, said they planned to introduce two new taxes that would more than make up for the loss of the container levy and would help defray the $55 million cost of the city's trash disposal system.
The tax measures are being offered as a more equitable alternative to the container tax, which critics have said saddles beverage merchants with a disproportionate share of the cost of diverting litter from the municipal waste stream.
One bill, expected to generate $8 million per year, would impose a $10-per-ton tax on private trash haulers who dump at city landfills or incinerators. A second bill, expected to generate $1.2 million per year, would place as much as a $10 tax on the sale of large items that eventually find their way to the city dump, such as refrigerators, washing machines, tires and cars.