Firestorm brewing as city manager outlines cuts to KC department

For the first time in many years, Kansas City’s firefighters could feel the heat of layoffs under a $1.3 billion budget proposal submitted Tuesday by City Manager Troy Schulte.

Residents also would see fewer streets paved and reduced park maintenance under Schulte’s recommendations to Mayor Sly James.

In recent years, the Fire Department has been relatively unscathed — and even added about 300 ambulance workers — while most other city departments have seen their budgets slashed.

But Schulte said that, as Kansas City’s economy remains stubbornly sluggish, firefighters should no longer be untouchable.

“We have to make strategic reductions in public safety,” he said.

His budget letter to James recommended reducing the Fire Department by 105 positions because fire calls have dropped by more than 60 percent in the past 10 years. He said he believes the reductions can be made without jeopardizing public safety.

Those personnel cuts would help free up about $7.6 million — money that could go toward raises for other city employees. Many of them haven’t had a pay increase in three years.

But Mike Cambiano, the new president of Kansas City’s firefighters union, said Tuesday that slashing Fire Department staffing, which now has about 1,370 positions, is a bad idea. He also speculated that Schulte was simply firing the first volley in labor negotiations, just beginning over a new union contract. The current pact expires April 30.

“My initial reaction is this is probably just posturing for the upcoming negotiation,” Cambiano said. “I can’t imagine the city manager — who never consulted the fire chief about a reduction in force — would endanger public safety or the safety of our firefighters.”

Cambiano said Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters stands ready to work with the city on budget issues, “but endangering public safety is not the way to do it.”

Fire Chief Smokey Dyer said Tuesday he had not been briefed on the manager’s recommendations and had no comment. James and other council members said they had not yet read the complete proposal and declined to comment.

Schulte’s proposal still faces months of scrutiny and public hearings before the City Council adopts a new budget March 22. It takes effect May 1.

The recommended cuts largely affect the general fund, which receives general taxpayer dollars and remains essentially flat.

In fact, the city’s overall budget would actually grow by $60 million — nearly 5 percent — because of increased capital improvements expenses in the water and aviation departments, which are funded by user fees.

The recommended general fund cuts come as Schulte said the city is suffering through a fifth consecutive year of little or no revenue growth, “making this downturn one of the most prolonged and impactful in the city’s history.”

He wrote that conditions represent a “new normal,” in which he is proposing long-term changes to strengthen the city’s financial foundation.

Schulte said Kansas City, like many other cities, has seen a drop in actual fires extinguished (from 6,797 in 2002 to 2,582 in 2011) because of improved building codes, inspections and fire prevention education.

Meanwhile, emergency responses overall have expanded, from 51,985 in 2002 to 56,337 in 2011.

With the integration of ambulance crews into the Fire Department in 2010, Schulte said he believes the department can shed the 105 positions without risking public safety. He also said he hopes the reductions can be accomplished through “voluntary layoffs,” including one-time cash payments and/or retirement incentives.

At the same time, Schulte is recommending $7.5 million for raises, in part for management employees who haven’t had one in years.

Of the $7.5 million, $5 million would go for police, but would be placed in a contingency fund until that department agrees to join the city’s health insurance program. However, the Police Department’s bargaining unit wasn’t ready to agree to that just yet.

Sgt. Brad Lemon, executive vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, declined Tuesday to comment on the specifics of the proposed budget, which he referred to as “bargaining issues.”

“We’ll be more than happy to sit down with the city manager and work out a package that is as fiscally responsible as possible and fair to our own members,” Lemon said.

Other key elements of Schulte’s proposed city budget:

• Funding for street preservation would drop by $2 million and street reconstruction would fall by $2.5 million.

• Funding for parks maintenance would be reduced by $1 million.

• The city would consolidate several departments, likely resulting in staff reductions, saving $1 million.

The city would eliminate the spring curbside leaf and brush collection, saving $100,000.

• The city would spend about $350,000 more to ensure public safety and other community services during this summer’s All-Star Game baseball events in July.

The Star’s Christine Vendel contributed to this report.

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