Measure would eliminate 'brownouts,' add 65 new Lexington firefighters

bfortune@herald-leader.comMarch 19, 2013 

The Urban County Council is set to approve more than $1 million in overtime for firefighters on Thursday, a measure that would immediately eliminate "brownouts" at fire stations in Lexington.

To accomplish this, council is set to approve the hiring of two additional classes of recruits — one scheduled to begin training May 6, the other in early July. When those classes graduate later this year, it will eliminate the need for overtime, assistant chief Harold Hoskins told council members.

Overtime was at issue because trying to eliminate skyrocketing overtime costs is what pushed the city into brownouts five years ago.

The city began "browning out" fire trucks — taking them out of service for several hours or an entire day — because of budget and staffing shortages.

"Starting Thursday in Lexington, there will be no more brownouts. From now until November, overtime will take care of brownouts," council member Jennifer Mossotti said. "Brownouts are a thing of the past."

Mossotti made the motion Tuesday at the council's Budget and Finance Committee meeting to appropriate approximately $1 million for overtime and approximately $1.6 million to hire 65 additional recruits.

The committee unanimously approved the motion. It goes on Thursday night's council meeting docket for two readings, after which it goes into effect.

The 65 new firefighters would give the department a significant boost. The department has an authorized strength of 545 firefighters; its current force is 496, Hoskins said. The department will also hire 12 emergency medical technicians to staff a new ambulance that the division is purchasing.

It will cost the Division of Fire and Emergency Services $2.6 million to hire more firefighters and eliminate overtime, but that's a savings of $810,000 year, Hoskins said. "It costs about three times as much to pay existing firefighters overtime than it does to hire new recruits."

Hoskins said fire station brownouts — which began in 2008 during Mayor Jim Newberry's administration — have become "an accepted means of dealing with revenue shortages for cities around the country."

Mossotti greeted Hoskins in the hallway after the vote and told him, "No more brownouts in Lexington. That's a milestone."

She said finding the money to eliminate brownouts "is all about setting priorities. Public safety is a basic service taxpayers pay for and expect."

Brownouts were among several financial topics council members tackled Tuesday at the Budget and Finance meeting and later at their weekly work session.

Finance Commissioner Bill O'Mara gave his monthly financial briefing on the state of the city's revenues. And Mayor Jim Gray unveiled a new economic development initiative designed to create more jobs.

Gray appeared before the Budget and Finance Committee to propose a $2 million economic development plan to create more jobs by helping start-up businesses get on their feet, working to attract new companies and helping existing companies expand.

Such a program would "enable us to act quickly and purposefully when opportunities arise," Gray said. His administration has been looking to pursue that initiative for some time, he said.

"Already, we have had one promising inquiry that needs gap financing, and they were taking a shot in the dark, not knowing this fund was being proposed," Gray said.

After the fund is established and promoted, "We believe it will become a popular and helpful tool for creating jobs in Lexington," the mayor said. He recommended that it be budgeted annually rather than being a one-time allocation.

Gray said he has begun conversations with the Downtown Development Authority and will engage Commerce Lexington, council members and others on how the economic development program would be set up.

O'Mara, during his monthly financial report to the Budget and Finance Committee, projected that city revenues could end up $6.4 million less than what is budgeted for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

O'Mara said that was because the city's four largest revenue streams were below budget for the first eight months of the fiscal year. Revenue from net profit tax is $5 million under budget; franchise fees are $2.5 million below budget. Employee withholding and property taxes are essentially flat.

However, O'Mara told council members that although revenue is down, he expects a boost in the fourth quarter.

"It is difficult to forecast in March how the city will end up on June 30 because so much happens in the last quarter," O'Mara said. "Fifty percent of annual revenue comes in the last three months of the year."

O'Mara said the city will continue a strategy of expense management containment, meaning "don't spend anything you don't have to."

Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251. Twitter: @BFortune2010.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service