Baltimore Fire Chief James Clack disclosed last night that $971,000 – or less than 0.5% of the department’s budget – would be saved by disbanding three fire companies, including the “heroes” of last Sunday’s rescue of three children from a burning house.
Prior to this statement, drawn out in a City Council hearing, the mayor’s budget office had lumped together fire company closures with a firefighters’ wage freeze, coming up with a savings of $8.8 million in budget documents.
This higher figure has been widely cited as the savings that would be achieved by the permanent shutdown of Squad 11 in Bayview, Truck 15 in East Baltimore and Truck 10, which played a critical role in Sunday’s rescue in West Baltimore.
The rescue – which The Brew reconstructed through eyewitness accounts and departmental records – was often referred to in last night’s hearing.
In his introductory remarks, Chief Clack cited the incident as an example of the extraordinary work done by the Baltimore Fire Department.
Calling it “a very scary fire” with a near miraculous outcome, Clack said, “I am very proud to be chief of this department. The men and women, they do a spectacular job.”
Present System “Not Sustainable”
When several Council members asked Clack to square his praise for the force with his plan to reduce the number of fire companies, the chief said that the permanent closures were preferable to the present system of rotating fire station closings to save money.
“If I thought what we are doing is worse, I wouldn’t do it,” he told Councilman Bill Henry.
In the best possible world, he continued, Baltimore should retain all 55 fire companies and end the practice of rotating closures.
But confronted with the reality of a very tight budget, Clack said, he was required to make decisions that best protected citizen safety.
“In my professional opinion, and I am not alone, . . . rotating closures are not sustainable” because they involve constant rescheduling and coordination.
Over the long term, he said, the permanent closures would save the city an estimated $3.8 million, including the liabilities for the health care and pensions of 66 employees.
Members of the closed companies would be absorbed into other companies, but ultimately there would be a reduction of 66 firefighting positions. (A Baltimore fire company has 22 members.)
Dixon Rejected Permanent Closings
He revealed in his testimony that he has been privately pushing for permanent closures ever since the city’s budget crisis began in 2009. (Clack was hired in 2008 by then-Mayor Sheila Dixon after he had gained national exposure as the Minneapolis fire chief during a major 2007 bridge collapse).
Clack said he pressed for permanent company closures in 2009, but Dixon instead opted for rotating station closures. Clack said such a solution should be temporary – “a year or less” – but has continued until now under Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
Referring to Rawlings-Blake , Clack said, “The mayor could tell me, ‘Continue rotating closures,’ and I would do it.”
Clack, who did not attend last week’s Council hearing on the closures, faced skeptical questions and frequent pronouncements that his plan was flawed.
Councilman William “Pete” Welch, whose Harlem Park district is served by Truck 10, said, “I can’t imagine that fire company not being here.”
He said that the company serves a very poor area with a large number of vacant houses and the largest number of seniors in the city.
“The seniors are scared to death” about the company closing. Welch said.
“God Sent a Sign”
Clack responded that all 55 fires stations would remain open under his plan – in West Baltimore, for example, Engine 8 and Truck 16 would cover for disbanded Truck 10.
The fire department has prepared a map, based on computer simulations, showing that the proposed company closures would have no effect on fire response times by the city, Clack said.
Budget chairwoman Helton Holton asked Clack to return to the committee with the map in a future, not-yet-scheduled hearing.
Councilman Warren Branch, chair of the public safety committee, said that “God sent a sign when he saved those three children’s lives.”
In an emotional statement, Branch urged the chief to find a way to keep the companies open and added, “If someone – a fatality occurs – I will have to hold your department responsible.”
Under the city charter, the City Council cannot add funds to the annual city budget without the administration’s concurrence.
However, the Council has the power to reject the budget and undertake negotiations with the mayor to make budget adjustments.
We Have the Funds, says Jack Young
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young referred to that process last night by saying, “I’m challenging my Council colleagues to make history . . . We have to start representing the people. Our duty and responsibility is to make sure public safety is not compromised.”
Young said a 1% cut “for all top agencies” could result in more than enough funds to keep the fire companies open and to end the rotating closures.
All 14 members of the Council attended last night’s hearing. None of the members directly responded to Young’s statement, but Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said that the city already has the funds if it reapplied the two-cent reduction in the property tax rate to these programs.
The mayor’s proposed tax reduction would reduce general fund revenues by $3.8 million, according to administration projections.
The mayor has signaled that she supports the fire company closures as a necessity to balance the budget and, so far, has not indicated that she would compromise on the issue.