Yael T. Abouhalkah

Kansas City taxpayers deserve to win the latest battle with firefighters

Kansas City’s firefighters too often get bogged down in bad situations. One of their ambulances was caught in a downtown sinkhole last year.
Kansas City’s firefighters too often get bogged down in bad situations. One of their ambulances was caught in a downtown sinkhole last year. The Kansas City Star

The men wearing bright red shirts with white lettering that says “Support your firefighters” recently have gone door-to-door in Kansas City neighborhoods. Their mission: Keep a station and a fire company from closing June 30.

The firefighters call it an “educational campaign.” A few residents, as requested, are calling or emailing city officials to urge them to keep everything open.

No wonder. Some of the material looks more like a scare campaign. One flier hung on door handles reads, “What if YOU called 911 and YOUR fire engine was SHUT DOWN? SECONDS COUNT!”

In a city where Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters has had outsized influence for years, this is a campaign that could cower elected officials.

Except that’s not happening ... yet.

City officials recently took the unusual step of issuing a press release that said the bid to reverse the closings “does a disservice to the city’s labor negotiating process and ignores the city’s budget process and financial realities.” The city also said good planning by the Fire Department would protect public safety.

Mayor Sly James was succinct in an interview on Tuesday, saying, “I think agreements need to be honored.”

The mayor and City Manager Troy Schulte point out that Local 42 agreed two years ago to close one of the city’s least busy stations in south Kansas City and to reduce staffing at a Plaza/Westport area station. The decision was made during acrimonious 2012 budget negotiations, when Schulte proposed cutting 100 firefighter positions. That didn’t happen, largely because the union agreed to the closings.

But the station and fire company have stayed open since then thanks to a federal grant. Along the way, though, Schulte says those moves still cost city taxpayers because they had to pay overtime to firefighters to keep adequate staffing levels at the stations and in the city.

Now the federal grant is gone, and the city says it won’t apply for another one. That’s part of a sensible strategy not to rely on temporary funds for permanent personnel.

Plus, the decision to close the station and pumper company could save taxpayers about $1 million a year in firefighter overtime, Schulte estimated. The union members at the affected stations, meanwhile, will keep their jobs and work elsewhere.

Michael Cambiano, Local 42 president, said Wednesday he did not want to comment on the volatile issue while a Republican site review team was in Kansas City, considering it as a host for the GOP’s 2016 national convention.

In the past, union officials have said the city could try to get another federal grant to prevent the closings. They also have questioned how City Hall spends money on other services outside of public safety.

The battle to keep the station and pumper open likely will continue this month. But here’s an interesting twist.

On Aug. 5, the city will ask voters to extend a quarter-cent sales tax for the Fire Department. The city has not provided a detailed spending plan for the money.

If the firefighters push their opposition to the closings too far — such as staging an illegal strike or job action — the tax vote could turn against them.

Adam James, a union spokesman, recently told KMBC-TV, “We honor our contract that we serve, and if they choose to shut them down on June 30, of course we’re compliant with that.” That’s an encouraging and reasonable position.

As Mayor James pointedly noted, if the city were trying to renege on any deal with the union at the last minute, firefighters would be livid.

The mayor and City Council should stay strong, let the station and fire company close, then make sure they have the best spending plan possible to provide Kansas Citians for the sales tax campaign.

To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or send email to abouhalkah@kcstar.com. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah.