Firefighters Feel Heat of Budget Crunch

By: 13 News
By: 13 News

Topeka firefighters are the latest to feel the pinch of the city's budget crunch.

In a newsletter emailed to firefighers Wednesday, Chief Howard Giles lays out a plan to reduce callback time as directed by the City Council in the 2008 budget. Callback is overtime expense incurred often to maintain minimum staffing levels, such as when someone calls in sick or is on vacation.

Giles says if the callback budget for the month is used up, and one to three people need to be called back, the department will take engine three, downtown, out of service. If it's four to six people, truck nine, located on 29th Street near Lake Shawnee, also would not run.

A firefighter who contacted 13 News is concerned about the impact to public safety. But Giles told 13 News he must comply with the council's requirement to cut some $95,000. He says he'd rather not take this action, but there is no other area to cut.

"While we prefer to not interrupt the operation of any company, the budget situation we have been presented requires that hard choices be made," Giles said. "This is a situation we would prefer to not be in."

Giles says call volume and geographic location were considered in deciding which trucks to not staff, if the situation arises. He says no station will be completely uncovered.

He also points out the fire department is not alone - the police department is leaving positions vacant and parks and rec is limiting programs.

Chief Giles Explanation of Budget Needs (from emailed newsletter)
2008 Budget: With the City Council’s adoption of the 2008 budget, departments were required to reduce overtime and callback by 10%, and contracts and commodities (things like uniforms, protective clothing, electricity, natural gas, water, fuel and oil, repairs, etc.) by 3.2%, and a reduction of $ 34,650 to our IT fee line item. Departments also shared in a City-wide reduction of $200,000. In the Fire Dept, budget reductions account for about $ 95,060. The City Manager has been directed to manage the budget. Dept Directors have been directed to manage their budgets. The City of Topeka is situated like many other municipalities across the country and is faced with budget cutbacks.

The only area in our budget where this amount of money ($95,060) can be reduced is in the Callback line item. In order to manage our funds, the available Callback money for minimum staffing purposes will be pro-rated on a monthly basis. If we go through the month without using this allotment, money will be available to put toward callback needs in subsequent months, or for the purchase of needed items for our personnel, but not otherwise funded within the budget. If the monthly allotment is expended before the end of the month, the use of Callback to staff all eighteen companies will be halted until the end of that month, when a new allotment will begin.

Other areas of the country are also struggling with revenue and budget issues. Other fire departments are positioning themselves to raise fees, control overtime, delay hiring and training of new firefighter’s, and layoff personnel. We have evaluated our own situation. Even though Council targeted specific line items such as contract and commodities, we know we cannot reduce these areas by any amount. We simply cannot stop paying for natural gas, fuel, electricity, uniforms, gear, etc. As stated above, the only area in which we can make the necessary level of reductions is Callback, by not operating all companies on specific dates based on overtime minimum staffing needs.

Other departments of the City are faced with their own reductions. The Police Dept will carry at least 15 vacancies and will forego purchases of equipment and reduce the use of outside training instructors; Parks and Rec will reduce employee overtime, limit program availability, defer vehicle replacement; Public Works will reduce overtime costs, limit repairs and renovations, defer scheduled replacement of items, and some street lights will be turned off.

On days we need to hire back 1 to 3 personnel, Engine 3 will not be staffed. On days we need to hire back 4 to 6 personnel, we would also not staff Truck 9. We know that for about two years, Engine 3 was not operated as a result of budget reductions. More recently, the overlapping of coverage by Engines 3, 1, 6, 4 and the response time issue were factors in the plan to relocate Engine 3 to Station 13.

In determining the second unit to not staff on given dates, Truck 9 was identified based on call volume, the special nature of other companies such as aerial devices, special team status, and geographic location. While we prefer to not interrupt the operation of any company, the budget situation we have been presented requires that hard choices be made.

This is a situation we would prefer to not be in. However, this is where we are, and some creativity must be employed in managing the funds allocated to the department.

One area that could impact this in a positive way is that of Sick Leave. Article 19 of the contract states that both the Union shall aid the City in every possible and conceivable manner to avoid the waste of the Fire Dept’s assets. Local 83 further agrees that they will aid the City to the best of their ability toward acquisition of the uniform goal of increasing the efficiency of all operations which are carried on by the Topeka Fire Department.

A huge positive impact can be made with the judicious use of Sick Leave. The flu season has caused higher usage of sick leave, so we realize that while not the only reason for Callback, the use of sick leave certainly makes an impact on our budget. Please encourage your co-workers to use sick leave only for legitimate purposes.

A suggestion has been made to rotate the unstaffed company around the City to all fire stations at one time or another, in effect, to make everyone feel the pain associated with the budget reductions. This would mean some firehouses would not be occupied on certain days, intentionally setting up a situation where the first unit to arrive on scene would take longer than normal. This would not be compatible with our mission. Our challenge is to provide emergency services with the least amount of interruption. We will continue to seek the necessary funding in next year’s budget to do the things we need to do. Whatever policy decisions the Council adopts in its budget, our role is to manage the resources provided to do the best job possible.


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