The Fire Department will move staff around and use overtime and salary savings from retirements to avoid fire company deactivations at the start of the new fiscal year, Fire Chief Rudy Jackson told council members Tuesday.
The department will give a review to council members after the first quarter on whether those moves are working, Jackson said.
“We’re going to be squeezing the budget as much as we can,” Jackson said in an interview. “We’re going to see where that gets us.”
Council members, who have been leaned on by constituents worried about fire staffing cuts that Jackson said would lead to rotating company deactivations and higher response times, lauded the solution reached between the Fire Department and the city’s budget staff.
“The solution doesn’t compromise public safety, and it’s a comfort zone that we can live with,” Mayor Betsy Price said.
She said the proposed $573 million general fund budget, which the council will vote on Tuesday, still “goes a long way” toward giving the city stable annual budget outlooks, instead of the big gaps like the $50 million shortfall that originally faced the council going into 2014.
The Fire Department’s budget for the new year originally faced a $3.8 million budget cut, and Jackson warned then that he would have to deactivate four companies on average per day. A fire company is one vehicle and its crew. The deactivations would have been spread among the 42-station city’s 12 stations with double companies, and average response times would have increased by one minute and 48 seconds at the stations where the deactivations occurred, Jackson said..
Residents balked at that, particularly ones in areas like the far North, which already experience lengthy response times.
In late August, City Manager Tom Higgins and the budget staff restored half of the proposed budget cut, and Jackson said he’d have to deactivate two companies on average per day, with the deactivations limited to the eight double-company stations inside Loop 820 Average response times would have increased by one minute at those stations during deactivations, Jackson said.
Council members worried that the deactivations were tantamount to a lessening of fire protection in the fast-growing city. The Fort Worth Professional Firefighters association opposed both plans, calling them a “phantom,” and launched a campaign to get citizens to contact their council members.
The budget numbers don’t change under the solution announced Tuesday.
“We’ve got to make our $1.9 million (budget cut), and it’s not an easy thing to do, when your budget is mostly people,” Jackson said in the interview. Ninety percent of his operating budget goes to personnel, he said.
The department will move some non-operations personnel, such as inspectors who are also firefighters, into fire operations from time to time, within the limits of the city’s collective bargaining agreement with its firefighters, Jackson said.
The staff, in restoring half of the $3.8 million budget cut, also restored some overtime that was proposed to be cut, and Jackson said he’ll use that to help avoid fire company deactivations.
The department will also use salary savings from normal retirements – an average 20 per year – to help augment staffing, Jackson said.
“We’ll be doing lots of things to make this work,” he said.
Higgins, in addressing the council on the issue, acknowledged “much concern and unrest among our council and the citizens” on the fire staffing issue.
Jackson “still has some real challenges in front of him,” Higgins said. “This is his good hard work, going back to the drawing board.”
- Scott Nishimura, Star-Telegram Fort Worth City Hall reporter