Engine Company, Firefighting

Budget-Cutting Struggles Sting an Already-Pained Fire Dept.

By Michael Cooper and Kevin Flynn
Courtesy of http://www.nytimes.com

It is a ritual of budget-cutting time. The mayor tells his commissioners to save money by offering up cutbacks. The departments return with too few cuts, or cuts so severe that they can hardly be taken seriously.

This ritual is under way throughout the government of New York City, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg grapples with a deficit that could easily exceed $5 billion next year, and struggles to cut $1 billion in spending next month. But nowhere is it more fraught than at the Fire Department, whose losses at the World Trade Center now make the normal give-and-take of budget season almost too painful to bear.

Some of the options being debated by the Bloomberg administration and the department show the gravity of the situation. They include closing two dozen firehouses at night; slashing the number of fire marshals, who investigate fires, by more than half; closing eight fire companies in houses that now hold two; and reducing the number of firefighters in some engine company crews to four from five.

In the Police Department, the prospects are equally severe. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said yesterday that the department had submitted a plan for roughly $250 million in cuts. He would not detail how that reduction might affect the size of the force, but senior police officials have said it could require them to reduce the 39,000-member department by more than 4,000 officers.

The Fire Department, all told, has been asked to cut $75 million in spending from its roughly $1 billion budget by next month. And while the final numbers are far from being set in stone, and the department may yet be spared some of the cuts, such a reduction would represent the department’s largest loss of financing since the fiscal crisis of the 1970’s, when hundreds of firefighters were laid off.

“The firefighters are all up in arms,” said one fire chief. ” `How could this happen after 9/11?’ they’re saying. They’re feeling pretty bitter.”

Capt. Peter Gorman, the president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, which represents supervisors, called the cuts “the equivalent of cutting the military after Pearl Harbor.”

City officials say that their hands are tied. They have a budget gap of roughly $5 billion to close next year, and any cuts in the city’s $42 billion budget must come out of about $15 billion that the mayor has discretion over. And that $15 billion includes the entire budgets of the Police and Fire Departments and the city’s share of education spending. The administration says that it will not endanger public safety and notes that the number of fires has been steadily decreasing over the last few years.

“The mayor has a deep admiration for the members of the Fire Department, but the current fiscal crisis demands we reduce every agency’s spending, no matter how tremendous their contribution,” said Edward Skyler, a spokesman for the mayor.

The city has already decided to delay hiring 300 firefighters until sometime next year, as part of the plan to save money. The longer the hiring is delayed, the more the department will shrink. Several classes have been hired since the attack on the World Trade Center, when 343 members of the department were killed. But the 11,300-member department continues to lose firefighters to retirements, which are way up this year: 968 firefighters have retired since January, up from 424 for the same period last year.

The budgetary chess game between the city and the Fire Department – which is playing out in other forms at nearly every level of city government – began in July, when Mayor Bloomberg called on every city agency to cut its budget by 7.5 percent.

But when the Fire Department submitted its plans in September, it did not even go halfway to meeting its target. This is not unusual, budget negotiators say. Agencies often fall short of their goals in the hope that they will be spared the worst. In these negotiations, the Fire Department was far from the only agency not to meet its target.

So the city’s Office of Management and Budget countered with its own list of what the Fire Department could do to save more money, including shutting two dozen firehouses at night and redeploying those shifts elsewhere; eliminating eight of the city’s 359 companies; and reducing the staffing of engine companies to four from five.

Fire officials have been meeting over the past few days to review the proposals and suggest alternatives. They have discussed freezing civilian hiring, and cutting the number of fire marshals, who investigate arson, to less than 50 from roughly 145.

It is unclear which suggestions are serious, and which tactical. It is in the administration’s interest to prod the department into coming up with real, workable cuts. And it is in the department’s interest to make the cuts appear too dire to contemplate.

Several senior fire chiefs have threatened to retire because they believe they have been given insufficient data to weigh on which fire companies would be best to close, Captain Gorman said. Francis X. Gribbon, a department spokesman, said that the chiefs were not denied any information and that their concerns were being met.

Cutting the Fire Department is notoriously difficult, politically. In 1975, when the city proposed closing Engine Company 89 in the Bronx, residents of Throgs Neck staged round-the-clock demonstrations for days to express their displeasure. And in 1988, when Mayor Edward I. Koch proposed a decrease in the fire budget of less than 2 percent, some 6,000 firefighters marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to try to halt the cuts.

Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta said it was premature to discuss potential cuts. “No final decisions have been made on specific cuts,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Scoppetta met on Wednesday with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to explore getting federal money to cover some department expenses. Senator Clinton said she left the meeting gravely concerned. “The Fire Department is going to face the kind of cutbacks that mean they are going to shut down firehouses, and that is not in the best interests of our city,” she said afterward.

The proposal to remove the fifth firefighter from 49 of the 203 engine companies – leaving only 11 companies with five-firefighter crews – would be the latest turnaround in the contentious area of minimum staffing requirements.

At the end of the Koch administration, the city won permission to reduce engine crews to four firefighters from five, in a move that the city said at the time would save $25 million a year. The firefighters’ union, the Uniformed Firefighters Association, protested that the move would endanger its members.

Then, in 1996, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was supported by the union, announced that he would put a fifth firefighter back on 49 engine crews. In a deal he reached with the union, the city retained the right to go back to four-member crews if the number of firefighters on sick leave climbed above 7.5 percent.

City officials said yesterday that the change back to four-firefighter crews would require union negotiations.

James Slevin, a vice president of the firefighters’ union, said that national standards recommended companies of five or six in urban areas, because of the exertion needed to stretch hose lines to the upper floors of large buildings.

“Any cuts in the post-9/11 world,” Mr. Slevin said, “is a dangerous move.”