Department overtime budget is exhausted Fire chief, union official battle over what services might have to be cut

December 31, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

For the second year in a row, the city Fire Department has exhausted its overtime budget months before the end of the fiscal year and might be forced to scale back service.

Fire officials aren't saying how much service will be curtailed, but deny plans to close a fire station, as they did last year.

The lack of information from official sources has fueled a debate between Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. and the president of the fire officers union, Capt. Stephan G. Fugate, who believes a firehouse will be closed.

Both have battled it out in letters to The Sun, the latest volley coming from Williams, who accused Fugate in yesterday's newspaper of inciting fear in the citizenry. "To try to arouse public passions by yelling 'fire' in a public theater is totally irresponsible," the chief wrote.

Williams declined to comment for this story, but his spokesman, Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, said, "We've gone on record saying a fire station will not be closed. Beyond that, we have no comment."

'Immediate action' required

But in a Dec. 17 letter to Fugate, Williams blamed the shortage on a $600,000 cut in the operating budget by the City Council. He said the shortfall "will require immediate action to reduce this expenditure. A list of possible closings, as well as other cost saving measures will be developed."

Torres would not confirm or deny that the department plans to eliminate an engine or truck -- which in many cases would cut in half a station house's complement of fire equipment.

The spokesman said any action "will be made public at the appropriate time."

Fire officials declined to say how much overtime was allocated in the department's $95 million budget for the current fiscal year. In September 1996, the department ran out of $2 million in overtime money three months into fiscal year 1997.

Officials responded by closing a fire station at 401 W. North Ave., prompting complaints from two unions and neighbors, who lamented the loss of nearby fire protection.

Officials said they would work to reduce overtime costs by hiring more firefighters.

'Mismanagement' charged

But Fugate said yesterday that the department has 60 vacancies, and he attributed the problem to "mismanagement of the budget. We're better off this year than we were last year. I think this latest volley is more political than economic."

Fugate, president of Fire Officers Local 964 and a frequent critic of Williams, added: "I'm convinced there is going to be a [truck or engine] closure. If you're going to do it, why play games about it? Be upfront and tell us which one."

The union chief said he is convinced that public safety was compromised by last year's closure and would be again, even if only a truck or engine is eliminated from a station house.

For the past two years, fire officials have closed some station houses on a rotating basis and shifted personnel to make up for a depleted work force and to retain a safety rule that four firefighters ride on each truck and engine.

Rotation criticized

The rotation also drew criticism from union officials, who complained that the constant shuffling of fire engines and personnel causes confusion and reduces the standard of care offered to city residents.

Fugate said yesterday that fire protection in Baltimore is spread too thin. "We're still protecting the exact same square mileage that we protected 50 years ago," he said. "Certainly we've lost population, but when someone moves out of the city, they don't take their house with them."

Pub Date: 12/31/97

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