Lexington firefighters' retirements might mean temporarily idling some equipment

Forty Lexington firefighters are expected to retire at the end of the year — twice as many as usual — raising the possibility that pieces of fire equipment might be temporarily taken out of service starting around March.

At an Urban County Council work session Tuesday, acting Fire Chief Keith Jackson gave council details of a plan under which some equipment would be "browned out," or taken out of service, from a few hours to not longer than two days in a row. When a piece of equipment is scheduled for brownout out at one station, it would be covered by another station.

The brownouts will not be necessary until March because that is when firefighters generally start taking vacation time, fire officials said.

Chris Bartley, president of Lexington Professional Firefighters Local 526, said the retirements were prompted by the increased costs of the city's new health insurance plan and concessions made by firefighters in the latest round of contract negotiations with the city.

Council members discussed when a new class of firefighters could be hired, and asked whether the salaries of the 40 people who are retiring would allow the city to hire more people. Commissioner of Finance Jane Driskell was asked to determine how much money the city would save over the next six months by the 40 vacancies.

However, city spokeswoman Susan Straub said later that retirees will get payouts for accumulated sick time and vacation time, which will be "very expensive."

Figuring out how to hire more firefighters "has got to be a top priority when council comes back in January," council member Kevin Stinnett said. "Because the longer we wait, the lower staffing levels we'll get."

The fire department is budgeted for 526 employees. It currently has 521 and will have 481 after the retirements. Stinnett said he had not seen the fire department at 481 employees in years.

Geoff Reed, the mayor's senior adviser for policy and government relations, said the city's financial condition makes the prospect of "hiring additional people at the moment extremely difficult when we're looking at a budget in as bad a shape as ours." And Reed speculated that "negative scenarios" for city revenues are much more likely than an increase in city funds which would allow for hiring.

Commissioner of Public Safety Clay Mason said after the meeting that he was not concerned about large amounts of overtime while the fire department covers the vacancies. "In the past eight months, you can see how things have changed at fire," he said. "I think they have a handle on how to control things without running up a large overtime bill."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader