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More fire station 'brownouts' ahead

Four "brownouts" at fire stations around the city are planned on Christmas Day, and more will occur in coming months as the fire department looks for ways to cut as much as $2.7 million from its budget.

Fire Chief Robert Hendricks said that brownouts — the temporary closings of fire stations — will help cut his department's costs and minimize the need to cut staff, although layoffs remain likely.

Stations scheduled to be out of service on Friday are Station 4 on Jefferson Street, Station 11 on Harrodsburg Road near St. Joseph Hospital, Station 22 at Veterans Park, and ladder truck No. 3 at Station 10 on Georgetown Street at New Circle Road.

Hendricks appeared Tuesday at a specially called meeting of the Urban Council Council to present his department's budget reduction plans. Eighty members of the Lexington Professional Firefighters union attended to protest the brownouts.

Asked about possible layoffs among police officers and jail staff, Public Safety Commissioner Tim Bennett said, "No final decision has been made on any of them."

Nor has any decision been made about how much the fire department will ultimately have to cut: "That's ultimately the mayor's call, and he is weighing his options before making a decision," Bennett said.

The closings reflect the seriousness of Lexington's budget crunch.

Faced with cutting about $12 million from the city budget, Mayor Jim Newberry had asked all division directors to submit 5 percent budget reduction plans by Dec. 2.

Newberry has said that he wants to avoid layoffs and abolishing positions but that everything is on the table.

For the fire department, $2.7 million represents a 5 percent cut in its $54.5 million budget for 2010. "The clear and glaring elephant in the room is overtime," Hendricks said.

Hendricks said he budgeted $1.2 million for overtime among firefighters. Of that, "$400,000 we figured we had no control over. It is overtime that we must budget in to cover people who are sick, on vacation or filling in for another firefighter," he said.

Hendricks said he decided his department could save the other $800,000 budgeted for overtime — the equivalent of 32 jobs, he said — by rearranging in-service training; reassigning staff from fire prevention and community service back into regular firefighting duties; and turning to brownouts.

Station 4 on Jefferson Street, the Vogt Reel House, was closed for 24 hours on Saturday. A brownout saves $1,100 per position per 24-hour period, he said.

Linda Gorton, councilwoman at large, asked where a station's calls go when it is closed. Hendricks said they go to the closest station capable of handling the call.

Representatives of the firefighters union, led by president Chris Bartley, met with Newberry on Friday to present their cost-cutting plan. Among their recommendations was deferring the department's $25-per-firefighter monthly uniform allowance for 18 months to save $223,650, and postponing for a year a 3 percent cost of living raise for firefighters, lieutenants and captains, and a 2.75 percent raise for majors.

The savings would be $1.234 million in fiscal year 2011, Bartley said.

In return, the union demanded no layoffs, station closings or other reductions in service, Bartley said.

Newberry commended their proposal but said it would not produce the cuts needed for the rest of fiscal year 2010.

"Given the economy, I cannot commit to no layoffs or staff reductions," he said. The only recourse would be raising taxes, and Newberry said, "I'm not prepared to make the commitment."

At the beginning of Tuesday's emergency meeting, Finance Commissioner Linda Rumpke and Revenue Director Bill O'Mara reviewed the current budget forecast. The city budgeted $279 million in revenue for fiscal year 2010, but O'Mara said current projections now put that figure closer to $268 million.

Of that amount, $195 million is the total city payroll, and $28 million is debt service on bonds.

That leaves $45 million from which the city needs to cut about $12 million.

After bickering among a few council members, 9th District Councilman Jay McChord urged, "Let's use this crisis and come up with a creative solution."

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