Three fire companies to close if no new funds found

Layoff notices go out as city scrambles for balanced budget

June 01, 2010|By Julie Scharper and Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun

Hundreds of city workers were put on notice of potential layoff Tuesday, and officials named the three fire companies that would be shut down if the city cannot come up with the tens of millions of dollars needed to close a budget gap by the end of the month.

"This is heart-wrenching to a lot of workers," said Glen Middleton, executive director of AFSCME Council 67, who said 210 of some 3,000 employees represented by the union could be let go. "This is a sad day, it's a horrible day for a lot of these workers."

The fire companies that would close are Engine 36, along Edmondson Avenue in the Midtown- Edmondson neighborhood; Engine 52, near Mondawmin Mall and Druid Hill Park in Parkview/Woodbrook; and Truck Co. 15, in the Broadway East neighborhood. Because fire stations house more than one company, the announcement does not mean that the stations themselves would be shut down.

But city officials expressed confidence that the three companies could be kept open as council members continue work on a series of new taxes. They said additional proceeds would go first to public safety. The city needs about $23 million, budget officials say, to prevent police department layoffs and major reductions in firefighting services.

Many of the layoffs could also be avoided, officials say, if the new taxes are adopted.

The rush of bleak budget news underscores the pressure facing Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and the City Council as they scramble to pass a balanced budget before the July 1 start of the next fiscal year.

Middleton said some workers received layoff notices directly, even though the contract says union officials are supposed to be notified first. He also claimed unfairness in how the employees were chosen for layoffs.

"It's got to be done with a sense of fairness," Middleton said. "Look at the level of management and supervision, then look at the workers."

Fire Department officials are making plans for company closings as part of a doomsday budget scenario that anticipates no new revenue and requires $120 million in cuts from the city's $2.2 billion budget. In addition to the permanent closings, a system of daily rotating company closures would continue.

The worst-case plan includes the elimination of 154 Fire Department positions, 91 of which are filled and 63 of which are vacant.

Also under the plan, one company, Truck 10, would move to the Edmondson Avenue station, where Engine 36 is.

Bob Sledgeski, president of the union of 1,300 firefighters, said he told city officials Tuesday that the layoffs and station closings would be considered "an immediate safety and health problem for our members," and the union would take "whatever actions are necessary to protect our members."

He said that could include grievances filed under the terms of the labor contract and complaints to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Fire officials have criticized the rotating closures of four stations citywide per day, a system that they say endangers some neighborhoods. Firefighting resources are stretched dangerously thin, they say, and the shuttering of more companies would compound the hazards.

Even with the additional money, city officials say, rotating company closures would continue in the next budget year, but would be reduced from four daily to three each day.

Stephan Fugate, president of the union representing 335 fire captains, lieutenants and battalion chiefs, said his members have enough seniority to be protected from layoffs, but some would be subject to demotions in rank. He said seven captains and 28 lieutenants could be demoted.

"We've gotten forewarning," of this possibility, said Fugate. "We're not totally in the dark. We're hopeful it won't come to fruition, but if it does it does."

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the agency had sent a list of 250 officers to City Hall based on union-mandated requirements that would result in the most recent hires being the first cut. That includes 50 officers hired using $10 million in federal stimulus money, which officials say would have to be given back.

Police commanders were expressing concern privately about morale; the notices will be going out as officers are being asked to be particularly diligent after an explosion of violence over the weekend that left eight people dead and continued Tuesday with another two killings.

Police say they have not been hampered by the budget woes. "The mayor made it very clear to the commissioner over the weekend that whatever resources the BPD needed, those would not be hampered," Guglielmi said.

The cash-strapped city and its public safety unions, meanwhile, remained at an impasse in their pension dispute, with police and firefighters preparing to file a federal lawsuit Wednesday.

Police and fire union leaders met with members of the City Council and other officials for about 45 minutes at City Hall but made no progress on the $65 million pension fund gap that also has to be solved in a month.

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