FORT WAYNE – City Council members gave their final approval Tuesday to Mayor Tom Henry’s $147 million spending plan for 2014, despite a last-ditch effort by the firefighters union.
The Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Local 124 went on a public campaign last week to derail the budget, saying that despite a $4.7 million increase in income taxes to pay for public safety, the number of firefighters on duty would be cut, putting residents and firefighters at risk.
The union took out a full-page ad in The Journal Gazette asking council members to vote against the budget.
“Our current mayoral staff proposed, and members of Common Council adopted a tax that was sold to the public as strengthening public safety. However, in their current budget proposal, firefighter positions are being cut,” the ad says. “How can we pass a public safety LOIT tax and have fewer firefighters on duty every day?”
But the effort began just as the council was giving the budget preliminary approval. And by Tuesday, the council was required by state statute to approve it. That made the union’s efforts even to be heard a battle.
Mitch Harper, R-4th, cited the council’s “Redmond Rule,” which encourages resident interaction, and said it would make more sense to hear what the firefighters had to say before the vote then to force them to wait until after it was a moot point.
But others argued forcefully against it, pointing out that the council is not allowed to add to the budget anyway – it can only cut, making the union’s arguments moot regardless of when they were heard. Council President Tom Didier, R-3rd, said he took personal offense at the campaign because it implied council members did not have residents’ best interests at heart.
Eventually, the argument dragged on to the point where Didier invited union officials to speak. Union President Jeremy Bush said they only waited until the last minute because they couldn’t get answers on the budget from the city administration until Oct. 3. He reiterated the union’s contention that a $1.2 million cut in overtime would result in five fewer firefighters on duty at any given time, even with the 15 new firefighters that will be added thanks to the income tax hike.
John Crawford, R-at large, pointed out the firefighters did not support the income tax hike, and that failing to raise the tax would have resulted in what he called draconian cuts, including 21 firefighters cut and stations closed.
“When we raised the (income tax), we were plugging holes in the budget and avoiding big cuts,” Crawford told Bush. “It was not an attempt to make everything perfect. … We didn’t try to increase the budget, we were trying to keep it from going down.”
Administration officials said the fire chief is looking for ways to reorganize the department, an effort that might make this year’s levels of overtime spending unnecessary and that the administration can always come back and ask for more funding if it is needed.
City Attorney Carol Helton said the one of the reasons there are so few firefighters is the union wanted it that way.
“When I was negotiating a contract with them three years ago, the firefighters did not want to add an academy class,” Helton said. “That was because of the amount of overtime its members were receiving at that time.”
Bush later confirmed that was true but said it was before he was union president. Even after the cut, $700,000 remains in the overtime line item of the department’s budget; union officials said that would run out by April.
Members voted 8-1 to approve the 2014 budget, with Harper voting “no.”