As we reported earlier today, Mayor Charlie Hales faced some difficult decisions when figuring out which of the $32 million in city spending requests would get the nod in a budget that contemplates, at best, a $9 million to $11 million surplus.
Money spent improving crosswalks, say, in East Portland would have amounted to less money for homelessness programs. Just like money spent on a parks bureau maintenance yard or on arts organizations would have meant less for earthquake preparation.
But one decision stood out in particular. Of all the major bureaus, only one received not even a token funding request: the fire bureau. And fire officials had desperately been hoping for some help with a fairly substantial funding request: $2.6 million to save some 26 firefighters funded, for now, with a federal grant. Avoiding those layoffs would mean avoiding another round of talks about closing fire stations—including in neighborhoods like St. Johns or Sellwood.
Unsurprisingly, that state of affairs has left the president of the Portland Fire Fighters Association, the union that represents firefighters, a touch disappointed. And maybe even a little betrayed.
"The 0 percent really makes me wonder where the priorities of city hall are on emergency responsiveness and the fire bureau," says PFFA President Alan Ferschweiler. "This was a day that could have reaffirmed how important this is for the city. That didn't happen."
How to handle the 26 jobs has been a hot topic in city hall (pun totally intended) ever since last year's budget. Hales had called for layoffs last spring, but relented after the PFFA and fire bureau managed to obtain a temporary grant and put off any potential pain. Ferschweiler had been hoping some better economic news, like a surplus, would ride to the rescue before the grant expired.
The city got its surplus. But Hales says he's still not ready to return the firefighters to the city's ongoing budget. At a press conference where he went through his proposed budget today, Hales wouldn't come out and say he's bracing for layoffs. Instead, he suggested the fire bureau and city's 911 bureau could figure out a way to start charging insurers for their calls—just like ambulance companies do—as part of the adoption of federal healthcare reform. (That may be possible, and it's something the city should look at. But it's also going to be incredibly complex and may take more than a year.)
"We've got a big asterisk on what exactly will the fire bureau be doing in the biggest part of their work," Hales said. "That's why I'm a little untroubled about the danger we're in of 26 positions being on the bubble again in a bureau of 800 people. It matter. But it will be a different world, I suspect, as we get further into these big changes in the medical system."
Ferschweiler called that a "good theory," but also said "there's no mechanism in place." He'd been hoping for 13 positions to be permanently funded this year, with hopes that good news would continue and that there'd be money to bring along the rest next year. He says he was told last week that wasn't going to happen.
Will there be $2.6 million in new money next year? Probably not, Ferschweiler says. And even if there was, he says, other bureaus would also lay claim to it.
"It's kicking the can down the road," he says. "The mayor was forthright. They have no intention of keeping all 26 positions no matter what."