Alternatives sought to fire staffing cuts

Evanston City Council members asked the city manager Monday to look harder for ways to trim the fire department budget without reducing minimum staffing levels.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, detailed a list of $159,000 in alternative spending cuts that Fire Chief Alan Berkowsky and firefighters union leaders had agreed on and urged the council to substitute those for the $275,000 in overtime cuts City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz had proposed.

But Bobkiewicz noted that some of those cuts might only be good for one year, and others — like uniform allowances — would impact things the city had promised to provide the firefighters in collective bargaining agreements.

Bobkiewicz said that based on surveys of staffing levels in other communities he was less convinced than the fire chief that the city couldn’t cope successfully with the staffing reduction, but several aldermen indicated they didn’t want to take the risk.

The city manager said he’d try to have a new set of proposed cuts ready for the council’s next budget session at 6 p.m. Wednesday night.

The city now calls back firefighters on overtime pay if sick leave or other scheduling problems mean the number of firefighters on duty would drop below 26. Under the manager’s original proposal the staffing level would be allowed to fall to 23 before additional firefighters were called in.

That would require, under staffing rules, idling one of the city’s five fire engines when staffing was short, which the fire chief says would happen about two thirds of the time during the year. It would also mean longer response times to some incidents and fewer firefighters available to handle major incidents.

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