A big fire is burning down at City Hall, and the fire chief is heading for the hills.
City Manager Troy Schulte and Mayor Sly James have pinned Chief Smokey Dyer into a corner with their directive that he come up with a plan to cut $7.5 million from the Fire Department’s budget.
In his 2012-2013 budget message to James last month, Schulte proposed cutting 105 firefighters. Fire calls, he said, have dropped by more than 60 percent the last 10 years, largely because of improved building codes, inspections and fire prevention education. Clearly, he implied, a bulging firefighting force was no longer needed.
Dyer’s and the fire union’s response? They chirped like birds whose nests were being threatened, saying such a cut would compromise public safety.
As the screeching went on, Schulte and James wisely put the ball in Dyer’s court, directing him to come up with his own plan for saving $7.5 million.
Dyer, who is nearing 65, has made it clear he wants no part of a significantly trimmed-down department. A City Hall source said Wednesday that Dyer was thought to be close to resigning after Schulte’s and James’ directive that he figure out how to cut more than 100 of the department’s 1,370 positions.
Now, it looks like Smokey has cooled off a bit…enough anyway to hang on until he gets a nice golden parachute. And on Thursday the council accommodated him by approving a retirement incentive package.
The council approved a retirement-policy change that will affect only Dwyer, and perhaps future fire chiefs. Under the change, as reported by The Star’s City Hall reporter, Lynn Horsley, “Dyer would be eligible for an annual pension of about $42,000 if he were to retire soon.”
As it is, the city’s retirement plan is only available to a member of the firefighters’ pension system after 25 years of service. Dyer has been the chief slightly more than 11 years. Previously, he spent 13 years as fire chief in Lee’s Summit before retiring from that city.
I think the ordinance that the council approved is good: A fire chief who has served for at least 10 years, even if he came from another city, should be eligible for a decent pension. Good fire chiefs are hard to find. And, as some council members said, the 25-year-rule could make it difficult to recruit top-notch fire chiefs who did not rise through the KCMO ranks.
The bigger point here, however, is that Smokey seems to have one foot out the door at a time when the department is really going to need some shrewd leadership to help guide it into a time of retrenchment. As Mike Waller, a former Kansas City Star editor, once told me, “It’s easy to manage in good times, when there’s plenty of money, but it’s a lot harder when there are cutbacks.”
Dyer has been very popular with the firefighters and their union, Local 42, because he has been able to help them get big, fat salaries and raises without sacrificing any manpower.
Now, however, Smokey’s and the fire union’s real good thing is about to come to an end.
The city can no longer afford a 1,370-person department where firefighters salaries average $56,000 and they get bigger raises than other city employees.
Something’s got to give: In some way, shape or form, the fire department is going to suffer.
The council has only itself and earlier councils to blame, of course: it was elected council members, worried about running against fire union opposition, who caved in repeatedly to former firefighters’ union president Louie Wright.
In January, The Star’s Yael Abouhalkah said this in a column about Wright’s retirement:
“A big part of the recently retired fire union’s president’s legacy is a bloated Fire Department that costs Kansas Citians at least $10 million more every year than it reasonably should. That’s $10 million going to more than 100 unneeded firefighters. It’s $10 million that could be used on smoother streets, bridge repairs, better park maintenance and new technology to catch tax cheats.”
It’s enough to make you clench your teeth, but it’s hard to bring about real change because Local 42 is so damned powerful politically. They back their candidates with money; they vote; and their families vote. On the other hand, many people who complain about how the special interests get what they want don’t bother to vote and, in many cases, don’t even keep themselves informed on day-to-day developments. In a way, the apathetic get what they deserve.
But enough of that sermon…back to the here and now.
Under new fire union president Mike Cambiano, the firefighters have dug in for this new battle. Horsley reported that several hundred firefighters packed into the City Council Chamber yesterday in support of Dyer and a no-job-cut budget. (Frankly, I don’t know how several hundred firefighters were able to squeeze into the chamber, unless fire regulations were ignored and firefighters were sitting in each other’s laps.)
As this face-off advances, it will be interesting to see just how hard and far James is ready to push against the union. After all, he was elected last year with firefighter union support, and he almost surely will seek re-election in 2015.
At Thursday’s council meeting, he gave an indication of a softening of position.
“We ought to be able to find some ways to make sure we’re not unnecessarily cutting large numbers of firefighters,” he said. “Nobody wants to do that. That’s not palatable. We’ve got to dig beyond the obvious and look at things that are not so obvious.”
We’ll probably end up with some sort of compromise where fewer than 50 firefighting jobs are cut and the budget gurus come up with a “previously unidentified” few million bucks — look what we found! — that makes the union happy. For now.
But by the time that happens, Smokey might have hit the door, or he’ll be mighty close.