Wichita firefighters at odds with city over proposed budget

The city's proposed budget next year for the Wichita Fire Department would mean fewer "boots on the street," the local firefighters union says.

That could affect public safety, members argue.

Rocky Bumgarner, president of the local International Association of Fire Fighters, said City Manager Robert Layton's proposed budget for next year impacts "boots on the streets" — staff who respond to fires. The budget calls for reclassifying five captain positions to lieutenant, eliminating a medical coordinator and cutting one fire medical officer. The changes would save the city about $175,000 a year, Layton said Friday.

Bumgarner noted that Layton assured Wichitans in his budget presentation that cuts at City Hall would not affect public safety. In a July 20 letter to Layton that he shared with City Council members Friday, Bumgarner wrote that the union "is concerned with the growing budget for administrative services while positions that make alarms, enhance firefighter safety and directly impact our level of training are decreased."

'Difference of opinion'

Layton said Friday that he understands the union's concerns but doesn't think public safety would be affected. The recommendations were made in concert with Fire Chief Ron Blackwell, Layton said.

"It's an honest difference of opinion," Layton said. "The chief in making these recommendations felt that he could eliminate the positions that Rocky mentions and still maintain service."

Most of the cuts, Layton said, don't go into effect until later this year or next year. That will give the city time to take a further look at all its options, he said.

"We could make other modifications and might be able to hold on to one or two of these positions," he said.

Bumgarner said he plans to attend the city's public hearings on the budget. The first is Tuesday. The second is Aug. 10, at which time the council will vote on next year's budget.

Bumgarner said he didn't see a copy of the proposed budget until July 13.

Under the proposed budget, the fire department would reclassify five captain positions to lieutenant positions.

Bumgarner said the savings would be minimal and hard to justify.

He said a captain "is usually the most senior and experienced position that brings knowledge, skills and abilities that are difficult to replace."

The changes also would affect employee morale, he said.

The union said that eliminating the position of medical coordinator, which would save the city about $65,000 to $70,000 a year, would affect training.

The coordinator is a civilian who is responsible, Bumgarner said, "for the majority, if not all, medical-related issues within the fire department such as scheduling, supervising and teaching all medical training" and ensuring that stations have proper medical supplies.

The importance of the position "cannot be overstated in that approximately 70 to 75 percent of all alarms made by (fire) personnel are medical-related and proper training is paramount."

Layton said cutting the medical coordinator would not occur until next year under the city's plan.

The budget also calls for eliminating one fire medical officer, which would save about $65,000 to $70,000.

Those staff members focus on firefighter safety.

Alternative cuts

The union offered alternative ideas to save the city money, including:

* Eliminating two of three operations division chiefs.

* Not increasing the number of battalion chiefs from nine to 12.

* Eliminating a storekeeper focused on managing inventory, a new position.

* Eliminating a division supervisor.

* Cutting two new clerk positions.

City Council member Jim Skelton said his first reaction to the union's concerns was that "no cuts means no cuts," referring to the city's pledge that public safety would not be affected.

"I'm concerned about it definitely and am going to be looking into it," Skelton said.

Mayor Carl Brewer said he planned to meet with Bumgarner about his concerns and ideas as well as sit down with Layton and ask him more about the thinking behind the recommendations.

Financial realities, he said, have required Layton to go "into different organizations and ask them to cut and do things more efficiently. We need to provide the same services but do it in a smarter manner. Our No. 1 goal is that the citizens still receive the same fire services and the same response that they're currently receiving today."