Candidates at odds over firefighter staffing

Local 82 President Mark Lakosky proposed that the city should hire 40 more firefighters

Credit: Nick Halter

A proposal from the local fire union to hire 40 more firefighters has leading mayoral candidates on the attack.

On Wednesday, Mark Lakosky, the Firefighters Local 82 president and Mark Andrew supporter, critisized Betsy Hodges for not caring about public safety and firefighter safety. Saying Hodges would be a “disaster” of a mayor, he pointed to annual Fire Department stats showing that sworn Fire Department staffing has decreased from 417 to 385 since Hodges took over as the city’s budget committee chair in 2009. At the same time, service calls have increased from 32,000 in 2009 to 37,000 in 2012.

Andrew, who battled with Hodges over the DFL endorsement, also criticized the Ward 13 councilwoman.  

“I know Council Member Hodges has said that the Fire Department is going to look remarkably similar to the way it is currently, but that is financially irresponsible and it’s unsafe for our citizens,” he said.

Andrew was referring to a statement Hodges made to Minnesota Public Radio on the campaign trail, saying the Fire Department would look remarkable similar to what it does today.

“The residents of Minneapolis are getting excellent fire service,” Hodges said in response. “Yes, there are fewer firefighters, but response times are under 4 minutes and we are the best Fire Department in the state.”

She added: “Under Mayor Hodges, the people of Minneapolis will still have the best fire service in the state. That won’t change.”

Hodges also responded to Andrew’s claim that she is financially irresponsible. She noted that Park Board Attorney and union and pension fund lobbyist Brian Rice is a part of Andrew’s campaign.

“Mark Andrew is not in a position to talk about fiscal responsibility,” Hodges said. “He has on his team, on his campaign, the people who fought hardest against pension reform. The middle men who themselves were making money on a broken system that they helped create and perpetuate (a system) that was bleeding taxpayers dry, that was losing jobs at the city and that was trapping pensioners in a broken system. (I) fought that tooth in nail (against a person) on Mark Andrew’s campaign.”

* Update: Mark Andrew’s Campaign Manager Joe Ellickson responded to Hodges’s comment: “Here we’ve got one of the campaigns trying to make this about insider City Hall squabbles,” Ellickson said. “This is about response times and public safety, and that’s what we’re talking about here. They’ve now turned this into the classic bait and switch. Instead of talking about response times, we’re talking about outside influences.”

Support for plan?

Lakosky’s proposal to hire 40 firefighters appears to have some traction with mayoral candidates.

According to a statement by Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn, one new firefighter costs $80,000 when salary, training, benefits and equipment are combined. So to hire 40 new firefighters would cost about $3.2 million.

Andrew said the City Council’s cuts to the Fire Department have been “overkill,” but wouldn’t say how many firefighters he would add until he was in the mayor’s office.

“We definitely are going to take a very hard look at where the needs are next year,  and I will, without fixing myself to any hard number, I will tell you categorically they overkilled in the cuts to the Fire Department.”

Hodges said that because of wise fiscal management by her and the City Council, the budget picture is looking bright. She’s not sure how much might be money will be available for the Fire Department, but she’s open to hiring more firefighters.

“Yes, I am open to hiring more firefighters,” she said. “But having no context for the full budget picture, it would be irresponsible to say yes or no to any particular numbers moving forward.”

Other mayoral candidates said they would increase Fire Department employment.

Independent candidate Cam Winton said he supports hiring 40 firefighters and that basic services like firefighting, police and roads are priorities of his campaign.

Dan Cohen said he supports hiring an additional 34 firefighters, to bring the city more in line with St. Paul’s department,.

St. Paul did 35,000 runs in 2011, the most recent year for data. That’s about 2,000 fewer calls than Minneapolis, but St. Paul has 434 sworn personnel to Minneapolis’s 385.

St. Paul, however, has an advanced lifesaving system and handles calls that paramedics from HCMC would handle in Minneapolis.