The possibility of massive layoffs in the Baltimore Fire Department has fanned support for legislation pending before the City Council that would provide monetary incentives for firefighters eligible for retirement to leave the force.
"By getting these people out, we can save some positions on the bottom," said Dean G. Muscello, vice president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association.
But Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who set the stage for the possible layoffs by ordering the department to cut $3 million during the last seven months of the current fiscal year, is opposing the pension bill, saying it would be too costly.
In a letter to the council, city Finance Director William R. Brown Jr. said: ". . .in view of continuing difficult financial times and the state's own serious economic straits, it is not wise to fund further improvements at the expense of public safety positions."
Councilman Timothy D. Murphy, D-6th, who chairs a committee that is considering the bill, said he would honor the mayor's request to hold it. Meanwhile, fire union leaders said they are seeking a compromise with Mr. Schmoke that would allow the mayor to support an early retirement package.
The renewed interest in the pension bill came as city fire officials revealed Monday that the department might be forced to lay off more than 200 firefighters and close as many as eight fire houses to meet a budget edict handed down by the mayor.
The layoffs are being considered because Mr. Schmoke ordered all city agencies to prepare austerity plans to make up for the anticipated loss of $21 million in state aid, part of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's effort to make up a $450 million budget shortfall.
Members of the unions representing city firefighters and fire officers say that paring the department of retirement-age workers would alleviate the need for the city to fire lower-paid, less-tenured firefighters most threatened by the layoffs.
"We'd hate to see these young people leave the fire service," said Mr. Muscello, who said he did not know how many of the department's roughly 1,800 uniformed personnel would be eligible for early retirement.
Fire Chief Peter J. O'Connor said yesterday that the department has not been able to save money through attrition because retirements have virtually come to halt since last spring, as members of the force wait to see whether the city will offer financial incentives to firefighters willing to take early retirement.