The Baltimore Fire Department, already forced to shutter fire stations daily to save money, could eliminate nearly 10 percent of its front-line force by laying off as many as 125 firefighters and closing a dozen companies this summer if dire budget projections come true, according to city and union officials.
Bob Sledgeski, president of the firefighters union, called the potential cuts a "doomsday scenario" that he called "devastating." The department is still reeling from a fatal fire to which response was slowed because the nearest fire company was temporarily closed amid budget cuts.
Fire Chief James S. Clack has held a series of closed-door meetings with labor leaders to discuss the budget, but he has not made any official announcement to the public.
In an interview Thursday, he cautioned that the projections are based on early assessments, made months ahead of hard figures and well before he has to submit a budget plan to city finance officials in March.
Clack called the numbers – he described a worst case as laying off 125 firefighters – part of one "planning scenario" based on projections that anticipate lower revenue from property taxes and possible cuts in state aid. Legislators are meeting in Annapolis now, and what money the city gets "is a great unknown," the chief said.
"Our goal in this process is to not lay anybody off," Clack said. "We don’t know what any of the final numbers are going to be. In some ways, this is all an academic exercise. I think it’s going to be better than our planning scenario shows."
City agencies are weeks if not months away from crafting budgets for the next fiscal year, and it is unusual for officials to mention even the possibility of layoffs so early in what can be an arduous process.
Mayors typically cut public safety only as a last resort. The disclosure that Fire Department cuts could be so deep is certain to raise debate among the public, as well as among city and state lawmakers. It could also be one of the first issues addressed by the incoming mayor, Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who as City Council president called for a reduction in the number of rotating firehouse closures.
Clack said he believes staffing levels are adequate, but he refused to say whether reducing the force would endanger public safety.
"The more firefighters we have, the better job we can do of getting to a fire in four minutes," Clack said. "If we have less, we get there slower and it affects firefighter safety and it affects property loss." He said if it takes 10 minutes to get to someone suffering a heart attack, "We can’t help you. Our business is saving lives. Time and money is what we deal with."
The Fire Department is funded for 1,790 employees, which includes about 1,300 firefighters and 200 paramedics. The rest are support staff, and there are 90 vacancies.
The department’s budget for this fiscal year is $153 million, of which $139 million comes from the city and the rest from state funds and revenue generated from medical calls. Clack said projections show a $3 million cut next fiscal year in city money. Factoring in rising costs, he said, could translate into a $6.5 million cut in real money.
Adding to Baltimore’s fiscal strain, public funding for the city’s fire and police pensions could nearly double this year, from $82 million to $165 million.
City financial officials have warned that property taxes might have to rise to help pay the costs or agencies will be faced with "significant reductions."
Among cities in the Northeast, Baltimore ranks near the top in terms of firefighters per capita, Clack said. Yet he cautioned that the city is near average when comparing staffing with the number of fires and square miles covered. Firefighters and paramedics respond to more than 235,000 emergency calls each year.
Clack said in addition to 125 layoffs, other cuts could meaning losing between nine and 14 companies and eliminating the next five academy classes. The budget talks were first reported Wednesday night by WBAL-TV.
Mayor Sheila Dixon postponed until July the permanent closure of two firehouses and cut the number of rotating closures from five companies a day to four.
Her decision came after the rotating closure of one fire company contributed to a delay in firefighters’ response to a West Baltimore house fire. One man died in the blaze.
In mid-December, hundreds of city firefighters marched on City Hall to protest cutbacks and complain that the city is risking lives to save money. Sledgeski complained that Dixon, who leaves office Feb. 4, cannot be trusted to maintain fire service and that calling her just weeks before her departure would be futile.
"With the current administration, I wouldn’t be surprised with anything she did to the Fire Department," the union president said. "She’s shown a willingness to put the public at risk by cutting the Fire Department to the bone."
He praised the incoming mayor, who he said has "taken the time to tour the firehouses and sit down and have dinner with the firefighters. I think she gets it."
Rawlings-Blake’s spokesman, Ryan O’Doherty, said "all the agencies, not just fire, are looking at different budget scenarios to prepare for next year. Absolutely nothing is final or even close to being final." But, he added, "People are planning for very difficult circumstances."
Clack said he has met only briefly with Rawlings-Blake but expects a more detailed meeting after she takes office. The incoming mayor has publicly said she plans to retain Clack as fire chief.
Clack praised both Rawlings-Blake and Dixon for their commitment to the department but said it’s possible the new mayor might have different priorities and different ways of looking at the budget and finding money.
He said there is no way at the moment to reduce the rotating closures, noting, "We’re not going to have any more new money. The city is scrambling to cover a deficit this current fiscal year."
The chief said officials will have to decide by July 1 whether to continue the policy of rotating closures, even if more fire companies close.
He said if the department can be funded at the level it is now, there would be no need for layoffs.
Sledgeski cautioned that the numbers remain fluid and uncertain, but he noted, "Obviously, the fire chief is saying it, so there is some concern that some cuts are going to come. But I don’t want to raise the alarm for something that we’re not fairly sure is going to happen."