Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday blamed antiquated work rules for allowing members of the Baltimore firefighters union to accumulate massive amounts of overtime that Fire Department officials say will exceed their budget by as much as $2 million this year.
The mayor said he would call in the firefighters union to seek ways of controlling labor costs, which are the largest portion of the city's operating budget. Mr. Schmoke will also be talking to other unions about controlling labor costs.
A fire union official said that the meeting with the mayor is scheduled for today.
"What we have is a modern department that is operating under traditions that were established decades ago," Mr. Schmoke said of the Fire Department. "We have to begin thinking about how we adjust to the fiscal realities as they effect the men and women who work for the city."
But Jeffrey A. DeLisle, the president of Baltimore City Fire Fighters Local 734, which represents the city's roughly 1,600 firefighters, said the soaring overtime costs -- which ate up 95 percent of the Fire Department's annual overtime budget last month alone -- are the result of the city's failure to hire enough people to cover all shifts.
Mr. DeLisle vowed never to agree to rules changes suggested by city Fire Chief Peter J. O'Connor, who yesterday blamed the runaway overtime costs on a provision of the union contract that leaves Fire Department supervisors largely unable to deny requests for vacation time.
"Absolutely not, n-o," Mr. DeLisle spelled out. "We have fought for 20 years to get what we've got, and I'm not about to give it back."
Under contract work rules, firefighters may schedule vacation time as frequently as twice a month, even if doing so forces the Fire Department below its normal staffing level. When that happens, fire officials have had to chose between sending out short-handed crews or paying other firefighters to work on their days off.
Members of the Baltimore City Council said that managerial incompetence and poor negotiating on the part of the city were to blame for the overtime costs.
"Why didn't management anticipate this when the contract was negotiated two years ago," snapped Councilman Joseph J. DiBlasi, D-6th, during a briefing of the council by Chief O'Connor.
Although Fire Department policy is to send a minimum of four firefighters on emergency engine runs, spiraling overtime costs that totaled $302 million last month alone have persuaded officials to send out short-handed crews as a cost-cutting
That practice has infuriated members of the Baltimore City Council, who agreed two months ago to shelve pending legislation that would have required four-member engine crews after they were assured by Mayor Schmoke that four-member fTC crews would be the official policy.
Council members and union leaders have said three-member fire crews pose a risk to public safety because firefighters must wait for backup crews in order to be effective. Fire officials deny that, saying that backup crews usually arrive within moments and that other jurisdictions operate successfully with three-member engine crews.
Yesterday, members of the council, who earlier this week were surprised to learn of the massive overtime costs, peppered the fire chief with questions at City Hall.
Chief O'Connor said that the work rules give the unions such broad power that as many as two-thirds of the Fire Department's 1,600 firefighters could be unavailable for duty at a time should everyone who is eligible put in for vacation.
"I have no control over that whatsoever," said Chief O'Connor, who said his department has spent $1 million on overtime this fiscal year, which ends June 30. "If they want the time off, there is nothing I can do."
Fire officials said they see no prospect of curbing the overtime costs without reducing engine crews to three people to cover manpower shortages for the remainder of the fiscal year. And fire officials said that unless the mayor vastly increases the Fire Department's overtime allotment in the upcoming budget, short crews could again be the norm during the next fiscal year.
That is not what members of the council wanted to hear.
"There is no assurance that anyone at this table can give me that we won't be sitting here next year talking about two-man crews," said council President Mary Pat Clarke.
Union and city officials agree that they knew as long ago as two years ago that the city would have to hire as many as 140 additional firefighters plus additional officers and ambulance crew members to avoid having to routinely call in people on overtime.
But the additional hiring fell victim to a cost-cutting hiring freeze by Mayor Schmoke, according to union and city officials.
Mr. DeLisle said the failure to hire more firefighters, and not antiquated work rules, are to blame for the city's predicament.
"I wouldn't call them antiquated, I would call them their contractual obligation," Mr. DeLisle said.