'Doomsday scenario' would mean laying off 125 city firefighters next fiscal year

January 14, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

The Baltimore Fire Department, already forced to shutter fire stations daily to save money, could eliminate nearly 10 percent of its front-line force by laying off as many as 125 firefighters and closing a dozen companies this summer if dire budget projections come true, according to city and union officials.

Bob Sledgeski, president of the firefighters union, called the potential cuts a "doomsday scenario" that he called "devastating." The department is still reeling from a fatal fire to which response was slowed because the closest fire truck was sidelined by budget cuts.

Fire Chief James S. Clack has held a series of closed-door meetings with labor leaders to discuss the budget, but he has not made any official announcement to the public.

In an interview Thursday, he cautioned that the projections are based on early assessments, made months ahead of hard figures and well before he has to submit a budget plan to city finance officials in March.

Clack called the numbers -- he described a worst case as laying off 125 firefighters -- part of one "planning scenario" based on projections that anticipate of more budget woes for the city that include lower revenue from property taxes and possible cuts in state aid. Legislators are meeting in Annapolis now and what money the city gets "is a great unknown," the chief said.

"Our goal in this process is to not lay anybody off," Clack said. "We don't know what any of the final numbers are going to be. In some ways, this is all an academic exercise. I think it's going to be better than our planning scenario shows."

City agencies are weeks if not months away from crafting budgets for the next fiscal year, and it is unusual for officials to mention even the possibility of layoffs so early in what can be an arduous process.

Mayors typically cut public safety only as a last resort. The disclosure that fire department cuts could be so deep is certain to raise debate among the public, as well as among city and state lawmakers. It could also be one of the first issues addressed by the incoming mayor, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who as City Council president called for a reduction in the number of rotating closures.

Clack said he believes staffing levels are adequate for a city this size, but he refused to say whether reducing the force would endanger public safety.

"The more firefighters we have, the better job we can do of getting to a fire in four minutes," Clack said. "If we have less, we get there slower and it affects firefighter safety and it affects property loss." He said if it takes 10 minutes to get to someone suffering a heart attack, "We can't help you. Our business is saving lives. Time and money is what we deal with."

Sledgeski said Clack bandied about scary numbers in early briefings, at one point talking about laying off up to 200 firefighters and closing 14 companies. The chief said the numbers are being exaggerated every day. Does this mean that the chief agrees with Sledgeski that he himself is exaggerating?The Fire Department is funded for 1,790 employees, which includes about 1,300 firefighters and 200 paramedics. The rest are support staff, and there are 90 vacancies.

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