A looming Bellevue firefighter staffing crisis has come to a head this year, when the city is facing a $5 million budget deficit.
To pay for 12 new firefighters, the city is looking at closing one of its four fire stations each day in a “rolling brownout.”
If the City Council passes that plan, it could take firefighters two or three times as long to get to some emergencies in a city that is already struggling with response times.
Fire Chief Perry Guido said something needs to change this year because current staffing levels are dangerously low.
“It's a box of bad choices,” Guido said. “We have to figure out the least-bad scenario.”
City Administrator Dan Berlowitz proposed closing fire stations as part of a package of cuts and tax increases designed to fill a $5 million budget hole.
It's now up to the City Council to decide what to do with his $68 million budget proposal.
“It's going to require very difficult decisions,” Berlowitz said.
No local fire department has closed stations in recent history.
Sarpy County has grown so quickly that all of its fire departments are seeing more calls for service than five years ago. La Vista and Gretna each recently added a fire station.
In Bellevue, firefighters were called to 3,115 emergencies in 2008. By 2012 that number had risen by 10 percent to 3,486.
The only other paid fire department in Sarpy County, Papillion, has never closed stations the way Bellevue is proposing, Fire Chief Bill Bowes said. He said he has heard of similar closings, but usually in much larger cities.
“Certainly nobody around here has ever done it,” Bowes said.
In Omaha, the firefighters union recently sued the city because Mayor Jean Stothert has proposed taking one firetruck and one ambulance out of service to address budget troubles.
Bellevue's staffing crisis is the result of a relatively new paid fire department trying to get on its feet.
Bellevue had historically been served by volunteer firefighters. But in 2009 the Legislature set the city on a path toward a paid department. The first paid Bellevue firefighters were hired the next year.
Since then, all the firefighters other than command staff have worked on a part-time basis.
Using part-time firefighters was intended to be a temporary system while the city figured out how to pay for a full-time staff, Guido said.
He said the system is breaking down because of high turnover among the part-time firefighters.
It's gotten to the point where Bellevue has temporarily closed a fire station five times this year because there weren't enough firefighters on duty.
Guido said the staffing shortage will only get worse without full-time firefighters.
The city plans to hire 63 full-time firefighters over five years.
However, even if the council approves the hiring plan, the city can't move forward right away.
The commission that tests firefighter candidates has objected to a provision in the city contract with the part-time firefighters union. The city can't hire firefighters until the Civil Service Commission tests applicants.
So the city, the commission and the union are in talks; officials hope a solution can be reached soon. But for now, Bellevue can't hire any full-time firefighters.
Bellevue has greatly improved fire response times since its volunteer department days. In fact, a World-Herald analysis found that Bellevue is the fastest-responding department in Sarpy County.
Still, the department doesn't meet the national standards on how quickly firefighters should arrive at emergencies. Guido attributes that to a lack of resources.
If the city closes a fire station each day, Guido said he thinks it will take firefighters two or three times as long to reach some emergencies, particularly on the edge of the city and in the areas south of town.
Nearly everywhere would suffer at least a little.
For example, the City Hall building in the middle of Olde Towne is next to the District 1 fire station. Now, firefighters could be at City Hall almost immediately after they were dispatched.
But under the budget proposal, that station would close one out of every four days.
So if there were an emergency at City Hall, a quarter of the time, firefighters would have to come from one of Bellevue's three other fire stations. The closest is about five minutes away.
The closings also could affect a mutual aid agreement among Bellevue, Papillion and Omaha. Under the agreement, Papillion and Omaha respond to emergencies in Bellevue when their stations are closer. Bellevue provides the same service to them.
But if there aren't firefighters in the station that responds to those other cities, Omaha or Papillion might pull out of the agreement.
That would further increase response times in northwest Bellevue.
To keep the fire stations open, council members would have to find $400,000 elsewhere in the budget.
That could mean a property tax increase of about 2 cents per $100 of valuation, or about $30 for a $150,000 home.
In the budget proposal, the city is already raising property taxes 3½ cents.
At least one council member, Kathy Saniuk, said she is willing to reverse the public safety cuts if Bellevue residents want to raise taxes to do so.
“I want the public to clearly understand what we're up against here,” she said.
The council will hold a public hearing on the budget Aug. 26 at its 6 p.m. meeting.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the date for the public hearing on the budget was incorrect.