Kansas City Fire Chief Smokey Dyer made a plea Thursday to save his department from drastic cuts. And he made it personal.
Flanked by several hundred firefighters, Dyer told the City Council he had spent the last 11 years transforming a department plagued with inferior equipment, poor training and decrepit stations into one of the nation’s highest performing fire departments.
In return for his employees’ good work, Dyer said, he had promised to get them the resources they needed. But with this current budget plan, he can no longer do that.
“I have failed them,” he said in a presentation that came just hours before the council voted for a measure that sweetens his retirement option.
The council is considering the city manager’s proposal to cut millions of dollars from the fire department and lay off 105 firefighters.
City Manager Troy Schulte previously had suggested the department could achieve that staff reduction, and cut $7.6 million, by dropping from four firefighters to three per pumper truck.
Dyer opposed that approach and said it would hurt his pumper crews’ ability to fight fires and rescue people in burning buildings.
Instead, he grudgingly laid out a different way to cut 105 positions, but said he could not recommend it.
He said the department could cut 75 positions by closing one fire station at the former Richards-Gebaur Air Base while consolidating staffing and changing deployments at other fire stations. It could cut 27 technical rescue positions and three Hazardous Materials positions.
But he warned that would negatively affect response times and performance throughout the city.
Dyer made it clear he was very unhappy about the choices he’s being forced to make.
In fact, he told the council Thursday that if the city is intent on reducing pumper staffing from four people to three, they’ll have to do it with a different fire chief, because he’ll resign.
No matter what happens, the City Council on Thursday made it easier for him to retire soon. While Dyer has not announced any plans to retire, the council approved a measure that provides for a fire chief’s retirement after 10 years of service, instead of the 25 years of service previously required.
Dyer left the council chambers immediately after his presentation and was unavailable to comment about his future plans with the city.
But during his presentation, he complained that the city manager’s budget recommendation actually cuts millions more from his budget than $7.6 million, including money he’s received in the past for vital supplies, equipment and fire station construction. He said some of those future station upgrades are mandated by the federal court to accommodate women firefighters.
“This budget does not permit us, with or without layoffs, to continue KCFD as we know it today,” Dyer said.
Schulte said some of the money that in the past has been earmarked for supplies, equipment and construction must now go to raises promised the firefighters and other city employees, who have not had pay increases for several years.
A budget document provided by the city shows that much of this year’s budget crisis is the result of those raises. Those increases — for firefighters, police officers, blue-collar workers, and managers — were projected to cost $18 million, but the city’s revenues aren’t growing at anything like that pace.
Mayor Sly James noted Thursday that fire isn’t being singled out, and that other departments also face tough cuts. Meanwhile, many departments, like parks and public works, have been slashed in the past while the fire department has remained relatively unscathed.
“Everybody in the city is taking a hit,” James said. “The fire department’s got to take one, too.”
But James also said he thinks there are creative ways to address the budget shortfall without resorting to either the city manager’s or the fire chief’s approach.
“We ought to be able to find some ways to make sure we’re not unnecessarily cutting large numbers of firefighters,” he said. “Nobody wants to do that. That’s not palatable. We’ve got to dig beyond the obvious.”
Finance Committee Chairman Jan Marcason said there were “no magic solutions,” but she urged council members and city staff to keep an open mind as they work to craft a balanced budget by March 22.
Councilman John Sharp said it might require city employees to give up on some of the raises they’ve been promised.
“I think it will take some further sacrifice from our union workers to prevent these drastic proposed layoffs from taking effect,” he said. “There just aren’t enough options for cutting other city services to reach these savings without the further help.”