The proposed 2015 budget presented last week by the Landrieu administration does not provide enough money to staff the Fire Department at a level that will keep the public and firefighters safe, the president of the local firefighters union told the City Council on Tuesday.
New Orleans Firefighters Association President Nick Felton said the Fire Department, which has about 600 firefighters, fire apparatus operators, fire captains, chiefs and deputy chiefs, needs 150 additional employees.
The shortfall leaves firefighters at a greater risk of injury and puts residents and property in jeopardy, Felton told the council. He said the administration’s inclusion of enough money in the proposed budget to fund two recruit classes is not enough to diminish that concern.
Felton’s comments — similar to those he has made to the council every year during recent budget hearings — came during the second day of the council’s review of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2015 budget. The council is holding at least 12 days of hearings on the budget over the next few weeks before it votes on the budget, probably on Nov. 20.
Landrieu has set aside about $98 million for the Fire Department in the budget. That amounts to about 18 percent of the city’s overall operating budget. It represents an $11.7 million increase compared with the 2014 budget allocation. That entire amount was added to the budget to comply with a court order to fully fund the firefighters pension fund. The city will make a total contribution of $43.4 million to the ailing fund in 2015.
The Fire Department budget also includes money for two new recruit classes. The first class will have about 20 recruits and the second will have between 12 and 20 for a total of 32 to 40 new firefighters, Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell said.
But Felton said that still will leave the department far short of the 824 personnel it had in 2005.
“I recognize that the chief is trying to put a fire out with a thimble of water,” Felton said. “We have to find the funding.”
McConnell did not respond directly to Felton’s comments.
Felton also argued that firefighters should have been included in the pay raises Landrieu has proposed for the Police Department.
“We support the pay raise for the Police Department, no doubt. But all of us first responders have not had a pay raise,” Felton said. “And firefighters are just as deserving of the same pay raise as everyone else.”
In response to Felton’s and McConnell’s testimony, council President Stacy Head requested a report from the Office of Accountability and Performance, to be presented early next year, comparing the local Fire Department to those in other similar-sized cities in the areas of workers’ compensation expenses, department size and pay.
Head said she also wants a study on the relationship between the number of firefighters and the number of fires in the city historically to determine if the department is, in fact, shorthanded and by how much.