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A class of about 40 firefighters will begin training in February to offset retirements and various costs associated with the new fire contract, Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle announced Friday.

The class will help reduce projected overtime costs next year by about $1.7 million, he said.

Suttle would not criticize the contract, saying he was focused on controlling the costs it incurred.

“All I want to do is face the realities of this,” he said. “We need to deal with what's in front of us.”

The class of 40 will be one of the larger fire recruit classes the city has ever had, said City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch.

About 16 firefighters are expected to retire because of the new contract. The class will increase the firefighter ranks to about 650.

A number of provisions in the contract forced the city's hand, according to an analysis by the City Finance Department. The biggest driver, the department said, was a paramedic training class that will detach 29 positions from the regular firefighting schedule.

Another clause calls for detaching nine more firefighters from firefighting duties to work in the department's administrative bureau.

Altogether, 38 positions that were previously reserved for firefighting have been reassigned by the contract.

The new recruit class will fill some of those positions but not all.

Overtime — at 150 percent of base pay — will be used to fill the rest of the gaps. All together, overtime to keep equipment staffed at court-mandated levels is projected to cost about $4 million this year. That's far more than the $800,000 called for in the 2013 budget.

More firefighters will be able to retire and receive maximum retirement benefits in the fall, so there's a chance another recruit class will be held in 2013.

“I would not be surprised if by the end of the year there are discussions for another class,” said Bobbie King, a city accountant who focuses on the Fire Department. “A much smaller one, though, just to get us to the staffing levels we need.”

The city appeared to have found the ideal balance between required staffing and financial restraint for the Fire Department in 2011 after reducing its size through attrition. Staffing went from 688 in 2009 to about 630, and overall costs declined even as overtime rose to keep equipment staffed at court-mandated levels.

When the total number of firefighters fell below 629, however, overtime costs went up dramatically, and overall costs followed suit. Last year, the city spent nearly $2 million on “call back” overtime to staff equipment — more than doubling the total cost from 2011.

If the Finance Department's projections bear out, the city will more than double department overtime again this year.

City Councilwoman Jean Stothert, who led contract negotiations, said she doesn't believe that training means the city has to increase the department's size. The department could find other efficiencies, she said, or managers could choose to do training differently to keep costs down.

“I will not support hiring 24 more firefighters so we can train 24 at a time. To me that makes no sense at all,” said Stothert, who is running for mayor.

Former City Council President Dan Welch, who is also running for mayor, said Stothert should have used city resources to analyze the contract's costs.

“The fact that she negotiated this deal for the city and didn't submit it to the Finance Department is unfathomable,” he said. “Of course this is going to cost more money. And of course the mayor has to take action.”

Stothert said the council consulted with a number of city departments and outside experts while crafting the contract.

Another mayoral candidate, State Sen. Brad Ashford, echoed Welch's concern that the contract was harmed by poor communication between the City Council and the Mayor's Office.

“It's hard enough to have the city negotiating when they're unified,” he said. “When they're not, it makes it that much more difficult.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-3144, matt.wynn@owh.com

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