It was the first thing Memphis Fire Director Alvin Benson told Memphis City Council members Tuesday, May 20, during budget committee hearings.
“Today, we have browned-out three ladder trucks,” Benson said, referring to taking ladder trucks out of service at a rotating group of firehouses depending on how many firefighters are on vacation or have called in sick.
It was part of Benson’s push for a recruit class in the fiscal year starting July 1 that is not currently funded in Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s operating budget proposal.
And it is the latest instance in which some on the council complain that Wharton should be leading and not offering the council options.
With the council scheduled to take final votes on all of its budget items June 17, the fire recruiting class is part of a political staring match between the administration and the council over who should propose something that, in this case, the administration backs and most on the council probably support.
Throw in a lot of history of how this has gone wrong for each in the past, as well as the council’s inability to propose funding for a recruit class and have certainty that the money will go to that purpose, and the stares become more intense.
“It really comes down to what service level are we going to provide,” Benson told the council. “We have reached the floor for cuts to our fire department.”
Benson also pointed out that last year when he tried to close a North Memphis fire station, community outcry and council anger prompted him to keep it open and implement the brown-out policy.
“The problem is we cannot interject into the administration’s planning,” said council member Harold Collins, citing the city charter provisions on personnel decisions. “But it’s something called sleight of hand. They want us to interject ourselves into their planning and policy so that when we do it, they can say the council did it.”
City Finance Director Brian Collins, however, said there is no subterfuge by the administration.
“How much government do we want, and how much are we willing to pay for it?” he asked the council. “The budget that the mayor put out there for you all to consider did have, in fact, what we call a reserve for pensions and public safety, knowing that these decisions ultimately have to be made by the council and you needed to hear and you need to decide how much public safety you want and how much you are willing to pay for it.”
Harold Collins said it is up to the administration to answer the questions about priorities the administration says it is up to the council to answer.
“Either you all do your job and you work with your directors or … get out of the business of being in the government,” he told the administration. “I’m tired of playing games with y’all. … Let’s have a real discussion about what we want. You all need to tell us and tell the people what kind of government you want and how much you want us to pay for it.”
Council members voted down in committee a plan to come up with the $1.7 million for the class of 100 fire recruits from a $3 million cut in the line item for fire department sick leave, proposed by council member Kemp Conrad.
Conrad reluctantly accepted the amendment to add a recruit class and funding to his resolution from council member Shea Flinn, with Conrad indicating he agreed in order to build the necessary seven votes for passage.
The proposal could resurface again as the budget committee moves toward a June wrap-up session.
Conrad acknowledged the council could set aside funding for a recruit class, the fire department’s first in two years, but cannot require the administration to use it for that.
“Unfortunately, we can’t make a personnel decision,” he said. “We can either do what we’ve been doing and that’s the status quo – and that’s continuing to raise property taxes, raise the cost of city government through paying overtime – or we can brown out and decrease services to Memphians, or we can look at a policy that’s clearly out of whack.”
His recommendations were based on the efficiency study done by Public Financial Management, the administration’s financial consultant, and a nearly 40 percent increase in fire department sick time from 2008 to 2012 compared with a 12 percent increase for police.
He said the standoff in who puts a plan on the table is “boiling frog syndrome.”
“It’s boiling in hot water. The frog feels pretty good,” Conrad warned. “The water is getting warmer. But the city’s dying and boiling while the administration and our friends that represent the unions fiddle.”