The city’s fire department may be the next victim of efforts to fill the city’s $8 million budget gap.
At a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee on Wednesday, the fire chief and his two assistant chiefs testified about the department’s efforts to stay within its budget and control costs in anticipation of further city budget cuts in the next fiscal year. Despite Mayor John DeStefano, Jr.’s call for all city departments to prepare budgets reduced by 5 percent from last year, Chief Michael Grant said he hopes to avoid layoffs and service cuts while expanding initiatives such as the department’s paramedic services.
“If we have to make cuts, I will have to make some very difficult decisions,” Grant said.
Cost-controlling efforts are already underway said Assistant Chief Patrick Egan, who was promoted in September from his post as the 10-year president of the fire union. The department is monitoring cost drivers such as sick and vacation time, and is seeking to streamline the process by which the department approves medical treatments injured firefighters who are unable to work, he said.
The department is over its budget on its overtime costs, said Grant. Both the fire and police departments came under scrutiny for their spending on overtime costs in April, when the budgets they presented to the Board of Aldermen contained a combined $2.3 million in overtime costs.
The fire department hopes to generate revenue through expanding its paramedic services, which will allow it to charge for first-response care, Grant added. Ward 17 Alderman Alphonse Paolillo Jr. told the chiefs he was pleased the department has made it a priority to increase the number of firefighters trained as paramedics.
“This is a bell [the Board] has been ringing for years,” Paolillo said.
Responding to a shortage of paramedics within the ranks of the fire department, the city implemented in June a requirement that all firefighters recruited to the department be trained as paramedics.
Grant said that in addition to expanding the department’s medical services, he hopes that the department’s staffing levels, which are governed by the fire union’s contract with the city, will be maintained in spite of the city’s fiscal woes. The fire department’s contract, which calls for a minimum of 73 active firefighters per shift, is up for renegotiation July 2011. But if cuts do come, the department hopes to make them cause as little disruption as possible.
“We have to be creative,” Grant said.
At a meeting with aldermen last week, DeStefano started discussions about the budget for the coming fiscal year.
DeStefano said preparing the budget will be “extraordinarily difficult” given the state’s expected $3.7 billion deficit and the city’s reliance on state aid.
Asked by Ward 13 Alderman Alex Rhodeen if the fire department has developed a strategic plan for the next five years, Chief Grant said such a plan would be included in the budget he presents to the Board of Aldermen.
The next Public Safety Committee meeting will be Jan. 5.