2011 Budget and Firefighters
Last Friday, at one of the most contentious Council meetings I've experienced in some time, I joined seven of my colleagues in voting for a plan to save 10 Minneapolis firefighters from being laid off.
How did we get here?
The dilemma we faced Friday was a direct result of the State Legislature's decision not to provide the City its allotted $87.5 million for 2011, as part of the State reallocation of the local property and sales taxes it collects from Minneapolis and other cities throughout the state. Instead, for no defensible reason other than an incapacity to balance its own budget, the State allocated only $64 million.
That's a cut of $23.5 million, to a general fund of $392 million, 46% of which is dedicated to Police and Fire. There's no way around it - the Legislature assured that we'd be making painful cuts to balance this year's budget.
Because we knew this was a possibility earlier this year, the Council passed a supplemental "plan B" budget. (You can see how this impacts departments across the city enterprise here.) Under that plan, the Fire Department faced a $1.45 million cut. If we'd made that cut at the start of the year, it would've meant 17 firefighter layoffs. In August, with about two thirds of the year already over, it would've been a much more staggering cut - 44 firefighters.
Instead, the Mayor and the Council President brought forth a proposal to use the City's contingency fund (think of it as the "snowy day" fund) to of set the cuts to police and fire, with $1.1 million going to the Fire Department. That proposal would have resulted in laying off 10 firefighters. An additional 3 positions would be left vacant after mandatory retirements.
Last Friday, however, an alternative proposal was brought forward by Council members Schiff and Colvin Roy. I voted for the alternate proposal. It also uses contingency fund dollars, but in addition it takes funding from vacant positions in several other City departments to cover the Fire budget, preventing firefighter layoffs at this time. This in turn prevents the Fire Department from having to lay off any firefighters, close rigs, and rotate that closure throughout the city, resulting in potentially life-threatening delays in fire response in various neighborhoods - including some in the Second Ward.
The Mayor promised before the vote to veto this action. He did so on Friday afternoon. His reasons include not wanting to balance the Fire Department budget with one-time fixes.
I understand that rationale. I don't want a structurally imbalanced budget either. However, by using contingency funds to reduce the layoffs from 44 to 10, we're already using a one-time fix. One-time fixes aren't the problem on their own - it's relying on them in budget after budget, as the State does, that is irresponsible. Taking the action that the Council majority did preserves our options for the 2012 budget. We may well have to lay off firefighters in order to make the 2012 budget balance, in addition to making many other painful cuts.
There are other issues that we must take up in the next several months. Chief Jackson must get the Fire Department's overtime and sick leave spending under control. This has been a challenge because the labor agreement allows up to 6 days of a year off without explanation for each firefighter and there is also a need to maintain a safe level of service each day. The Council needs to review the vacant building inspections program, which two years ago was we assigned to the Fire Department to be a revenue generator for the Department but appears to actually be costing them money and staff. We also need the time to engage the larger community in a serious discussion about what the basic "standard of coverage" should be. What should be the minimum number of on-duty firefighters for every shift be? Is it worth raising property taxes to maintain this? Another action we took that I supported related to this includes directing the Chief to apply for a federal SAFER grant that could help fund staff positions and to suspend the standard of coverage requirement and leave that up to the discretion of the Fire Chief, as we do with other departments in including the police.
If you are interested there is some useful data online that will help inform the conversation, although there are still many questions to be answered.
To give us time to have these conversations without resulting in diminished public safety service to residents for the latter part of this year, I plan to vote to override the Mayor's veto. If an alternative proposal comes forward for more stable funding that the Mayor indicates he will sign, I may reconsider this position. But so far, no such alternative solution has been found.
This is a challenging issue and in times made more challenging because of the approach taken at the state legislature. Because of the limited number of ways to raise revenue available to us, we are forced to decide between cutting core services or raising property taxes on the middle class. The state, on the to her hand, could use a progressive income tax system to raise the income tax on the wealthiest Minnesotans to better fund its obligations to cities and counties through the state.
Though I disagree with the Mayor and some of my colleagues on this issue, I know that everyone is trying to do the right thing, in a very difficult situation not of our own making.