Playing with fire

November 15, 1990

Mayor Schmoke and the City Council are embroiled in a fine donnybrook over a bill that would require four-man crews on city fire trucks. The council passed the measure unanimously on Monday, over the threat of a mayoral veto.

Actually, what both sides are doing is a little pre-election, hostage-taking and bet-hedging. The mayor wants to keep his fiscal options open for a cosmetic property tax cut next year and feels the four-man fire crew rule could tie his hands when time comes to submit his budget. The council thinks fire stations may play well with the electorate in '91, especially with municipal union workers who stand to benefit from any precedent that lets the council set work and overtime pay rules.

Since it takes only 15 votes to override a veto, it would seem the mayor and the council are on a collision course. Not so. Remember, Schmoke has accumulated an enormous campaign war chest for next year, so far with no credible opponent in sight. Surely he'll use some of that money to help his friends on the council. He'll also oversee redistricting as a result of the 1990 Census, which is a big stick to wield against those who aren't his friends. So it's likely that if it comes to a fight, the mayor will find five votes on the council to defeat any override.

That would be in Baltimore's best interest, too. Four-man crews are already city policy; the three-man teams are a temporary expedient until the next class of cadets graduates from the fire academy. A law mandating crew size deprives the mayor of any discretion in managing short-term budget problems. It also would probably violate the city charter and encourage other municipal unions to press the council for more favorable work and overtime benefits for their members. These simply are not matters that ought to be adjudicated by city ordinance.

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