The Omaha Fire Department faces a multimillion-dollar shortfall, Fire Chief Michael McDonnell says — prompting him, weeks before May's city election, to ask the City Council to take a rare step to revive labor negotiations with the city's fire unions.
McDonnell, in a letter sent to City Council members Friday, blamed the latest fire union contract for burdening the department with extra costs that he said its current budget cannot absorb.
Though the council has transferred millions of dollars into the department's budget to offset some of the additional costs associated with the latest contract, McDonnell wrote, the department will still face an $8.6 million shortfall at the end of the year.
McDonnell's letter asks the council to transfer an additional $5.3 million into the department's budget — a move the body declined to do in February — to offset part of the gap. Renewing contract negotiations “may achieve at least some additional financial relief,” McDonnell wrote.
Council member Jean Stothert, who seeks to unseat Mayor Jim Suttle and heads a committee that led negotiations on the contested fire contract, said the council would not reopen contract negotiations.
“I do not see this as an issue of being over-budget,” Stothert told The World-Herald. “I see it as an issue of failed leadership and failed management.”
The two other members of the council's labor negotiations committee, Chris Jerram and Pete Festersen, did not return calls and messages seeking comment.
“I believe that this is political gamesmanship,” Stothert said.
“I think that they're trying to muddy the waters and make it look like the City Council, myself included, did something that is costing the taxpayers a lot of extra money.”
McDonnell's letter is the latest step in a long back-and-forth between Suttle's administration and Stothert's camp over the relative merits and costs of fire contracts that each side has proposed.
Stothert contends the council's deal put the city's troubled police and fire pension fund on a path to solvency and trimmed health care costs more than Suttle's agreement.
But the council's contract, McDonnell wrote, “significantly altered projected costs due to changes in wages, benefits, and additional obligations, however, the Fire Department budget remained set at 70.5 million dollars.”
Earlier this year, Suttle's office announced that a recruit class of about 40 firefighters would begin training to offset retirements and various costs associated with the new fire contract, mostly related to mandatory paramedic training. The class would help reduce projected overtime costs next year by about $1 million, the mayor said.
The exact state of the city's finances for 2012 are not yet clear, and city officials are in the early stages of preparing for next year's budget.
Stothert said the department has consistently exceeded its budget during the last four years.
“If you hire 40 more firefighters, that could certainly contribute to you being over-budget,” she said. “That's a lack of management.”
Fire union President Steve LeClair said McDonnell asked the union for relief from any components of the contract that might be open to discussion.
“I pretty much told him, 'No',” LeClair said Friday. “It's definitely outside of my authority as the union president to grant such requests.”
McDonnell's letter said LeClair would ask the fire union's board to approve reopening negotiations if the council made such a request.
A group of council members is scheduled to meet with McDonnell on Tuesday, Stothert said.
“We need to sit down with the chief and they need to explain it to us before we jump to any conclusions about any further action we need to take,” Stothert said. “We're not going to jump and reopen negotiations because he feels like he is over budget in the first quarter.”
Stothert said it would be “more productive” for the Fire Department to adjust its spending to meet its budget.
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