The City of Omaha and its fire union can avoid idled equipment and layoffs by amending a divisive labor contract, the fire chief and a city councilman said Tuesday.
Otherwise, Fire Chief Mike McDonnell told council members during a budget briefing, the Fire Department budget proposed by Mayor Jean Stothert would hurt public safety in southwest Omaha.
McDonnell and Stothert have been at odds over a $90.6 million Fire Department budget, which could force layoffs, demotions and pulling firetrucks and ambulances from service.
The union and Mayor's Office had engaged in some early discussions to resolve the dispute. But McDonnell said talks stopped after an executive order from Stothert on national firefighting guidelines and an ensuing union lawsuit.
Both sides could be well served to strike compromise before a Douglas County judge rules on that lawsuit. A court decision favoring either side could cause problems for the other at the negotiating table.
Councilman Chris Jerram likened the situation to a “game of chicken.”
“There is a pathway, a light at the end of the tunnel, to solve all this, correct?” Jerram asked McDonnell.
“Yes,” the fire chief replied.
McDonnell, a former fire union president, said fire officials want to revive negotiations.
“I believe the only real solution is all of us working together,” he said.
“Negotiate versus litigate.”
If talks resume, both sides could discuss the requirements of a costly paramedic training program. The union could seek further guarantees to its wages and benefits, or a contract extension.
“We're not here as the Fire Department to say we're asking you for more because of 'A', 'B' and 'C',” McDonnell told council members. “We're saying as the Fire Department, today, we want to maintain the service we're giving the citizens as of today.”
Stothert said she is open to other budget options suggested by department and union officials.
“With public safety departments, reducing staff, demotions and taking rigs out of service are never popular, but sometimes necessary,” Stothert said in a statement.
McDonnell said he would likely idle an ambulance based near 168th and Pacific Streets and a truck located near 111th and I Streets, leading to service reductions that he said would diminish public safety.
Councilman Franklin Thompson called that suggestion “disingenuous.”
“It just seems that singling out Districts 5 and 6 is a little political, to me,” Thompson said. “If you truly want to be a community partner, you spread the pain out.”
Any reductions in rigs, McDonnell said, would reduce public safety. Aside from wanting enough money to avoid layoffs and idled equipment, McDonnell wants some $150,000 to pay physicians that serve as the department's medical consultants.
Jerram, a member of the council committee that negotiated the latest fire pact, said there are options to end the standoff. The council returned labor negotiating powers to the Mayor Office earlier this year, after stripping that authority from former Mayor Jim Suttle's administration.
But Jerram sounded confident a deal would be reached.
“I'm convinced that if we all roll up our sleeves, we can get this done,” he said.
“It's just a matter of everybody leaving the courthouse out of this and solving this in the Civic Center, not in District Court.”