Omaha Fire Chief Mike McDonnell’s exit deal comes with the city’s second-highest pension and a pledge to protect his department from cuts — but it’s a step down from the package he nearly had a few weeks ago.
The agreement announced Monday has McDonnell retiring Nov. 8 with a pension based on his 24 years of service, which will amount to about $124,000 per year. In the deal that fell through last month, McDonnell would have received credit for an extra year, bringing his annual pension to more than $130,800.
Mayor Jean Stothert, meanwhile, will be able to lay off firefighters and take rigs out of service after Dec. 21, if she chooses. That’s also a concession from McDonnell that differs from the first deal, which blocked those moves through next June.
The new deal also gives Stothert the ability to reduce the number of assistant fire chiefs, an authority that had been limited in the original plan.
Still, McDonnell said Monday that he’s pleased with the deal reached after months of tension with the Mayor’s Office.
“This agreement gives the mayor and the fire union a chance to work together without taking any firetrucks out of service or laying firefighters off and to find another solution to the financial problems,” he said.
McDonnell will remain on paid administrative leave until Nov. 8. Already, his temporary replacement says he is finding ways to save money that could help stave off significant cuts.
Interim Chief Bernie Kanger has been filling in for McDonnell since his potential departure was announced three weeks ago. In that time, Kanger has reassigned about a half-dozen people from the department’s bureau to work on fire suppression. Those firefighters have filled in for others who would have worked overtime shifts.
Kanger said those moves are expected to save the city $300,000 over the last part of this year.
In addition, Kanger has shifted assistant fire chiefs from a 24-hour shift schedule to a 40-hour workweek, which he said also has reduced spending on overtime.
Stothert said Kanger is working to find ways to stay within the department’s $90.6 million budget next year.
That budget was the major point of contention between Stothert and McDonnell, who said the department needed $94 million to avoid cuts that could slow responses and put firefighters at risk.
At $90.6 million, Stothert said the city would most likely have to lay off 16 firefighters, demote eight Fire Department employees and pull two rigs from service.
The deal reached Monday allows Stothert to remove one South Omaha-based medic unit from service earlier than December.
“We don’t want to do layoffs, but if we have to, to control the budget, we will,” Stothert said Monday afternoon.
She said those layoffs could be avoided if Kanger and other officials make progress in asking the fire union for concessions.
Kanger said those kinds of deals have not yet been reached, but he’s optimistic.
Steve LeClair, the fire union’s president, could not be reached for comment.
“The lines of communication are open,” Kanger said. “They haven’t been for quite a while, or at least that was my perception when I first came through the door. They just weren’t talking about it, and we are now.”
The original retirement deal, which broke down after McDonnell asked for revisions to a tentative agreement, would have given the chief the largest pension in the city’s history. The new plan will put him at No. 2, behind former Police Chief Alex Hayes.
Monday’s agreement also puts an end — at least for a while — to any public criticism from Stothert about McDonnell or vice versa.
The deal includes a joint non-disparagement agreement that runs through Dec. 21.