Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says he'll go to court to block a bill requiring city fire engines and trucks to be staffed by four firefighters if his veto of the legislation is overridden by the City Council.
The council on Monday voted unanimously to approve the bill, despite a veto threat from Schmoke and his assurance that the city would staff the engines with four men except in "exigent" circumstances -- mainly when the department is short of money. The only other way to save money, officials have said, is to close fire stations or suspend the use of some engine companies.
Schmoke yesterday called the council bill an intrusion into the executive powers of the mayor, one that the city solicitor has said violates the city charter. Should the bill stand, Schmoke added, it would establish a terrible precedent.
"The Police Department could come in and say 'our job has risks, too. We want two people to a patrol car,' " Schmoke said. "Corrections officers could come in and demand a bill laying out minimum staffing levels for the jail. . . . This just opens up a Pandora's box."
In voting to pass the fire staffing measure on Monday, the council said it is in the interest of public safety to staff fire engines and trucks with four men at all times. Even as the mayor expressed confidence that his veto would not be overridden, he ripped into the council's claim yesterday.
"It is really a guaranteed overtime bill masquerading as a public safety ordinance," Schmoke said.
If the council is allowed to legislate staffing levels in city departments it would place a heavy burden on the city's already strapped budget, the mayor said. "Where does it stop?" he asked. "This would just spin the whole budget out of control."
Schmoke has five regular council meetings in which to return the bill with his veto and an explanation of his objections. And the council is scheduled to meet five more times before it recesses for the holidays Dec. 10.
Crews on engines and ladders are now operating with four workers during the week but with only three on weekends and holidays. Schmoke said last week that all work crews should be back to the four-man level by Dec. 8, and that three-man crews would be a rare exception after then. That assurance has proven to be unacceptable to council members.
"The solution to this is not in vetoes and veto overrides and court cases," said Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "The solution is for the Fire Board to heed the mayor and adopt clear regulations" spelling out a staffing policy for fire vehicles.
But David Glenn, head of the Fire Board, said the board's policy could not be clearer.
"We have done this so many times," Glenn said. "I've never seen any issue so fraught with inaccuracy. We have said it over and over again: The only reason we had gone to three-man crews was because of a budget shortfall. But our policy is to have four men."