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Published: Saturday, 2/14/2009

City of Toledo threatens to revive police layoffs

BY ERICA BLAKE
AND IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Laying off Toledo police officers is back on the table if the union representing firefighters can keep the Finkbeiner administration from reducing the Toledo firefighter line strength, a top city leader said.

Less than 24 hours after Mayor Carty Finkbeiner announced his plan to reduce the contract-mandated 103 firefighters per day to 99, a Lucas County Common Pleas Court judge granted a temporary restraining order Friday to stop the change.

Robert Reinbolt, the mayor's chief of staff, said the city needs to save $2.5 million this year by reducing overtime in the fire department, reassigning more firefighters to the line, and taking a fire truck out of service - which would reduce the number of firefighters required to be on duty.

"Without that, I see no other option other than laying off police officers," Mr. Reinbolt said. "To me, their contract says I can take an apparatus out of service."

Toledo Firefighters Local 92 filed a complaint Friday claiming that a reduction in the daily number of firefighters working not only would violate the union's contract but also would create a safety issue for both the firefighters and the residents of Toledo.

The union asked that Judge Linda Jennings grant a preliminary restraining order against the change as well as a declaratory judgment that the city violated the collective bargaining agreement when it refused to timely arbitration of the union's grievance about the change.

After a brief hearing Friday, Judge Jennings granted the temporary restraining order and set a Feb. 25 hearing date.

Mr. Reinbolt warned that the city cannot afford to wait even a few weeks to cut the overtime costs.

The cost for fire department overtime is $10,000 a day, he said.

"That is going to force us to lay off, and the police department is the only place left," he said.

Mayor Finkbeiner, in a statement Friday night, said the level of public protection would have been virtually unaffected by removing a fire truck from service, which would save approximately $4,000 a day.

"The economic downturn requires budget-cutting measures," the mayor said. "If such measures are fought by each union, the city is in economic peril."

Mayor Finkbeiner on Thursday proposed a combination of cuts and new revenue to fill a $14 million budget hole.

In addition to the fire department cuts, he wants to slash $438,000 from the police department's overtime budget, training funds, and postage money.

The mayor's plan also would require city residents who work in another city to pay more income tax by eliminating 50 percent of the tax credit with other cities.

Toledo City Councilman George Sarantou said that part of the budget-balancing plan needs a complete vetting and public hearings.

Regarding the potential for police layoffs, Toledo City Council President Mark Sobczak said it is "not an automatic."

"My suggestion would be having an arbitration meeting and arbitrate the matter. That way there is no action until they know if they can or can't do it," he said.

Donato Iorio, lawyer for Local 92, said the union was "exceptionally pleased" that Judge Jennings recognized the inherent danger in reducing line strength.

"It sends a clear message to the mayor that we're willing to talk but we're not willing to compromise safety, not only for the firefighters but also for the public."

Mr. Iorio said a restraining order was necessary because the city had denied the union's request that the city maintain the "contractual status quo" while the issue went to arbitration.

According to the firefighters' contract, "the minimum daily line strength shall be one hundred and three (103) members." Mr. Iorio pointed out that there are no exceptions to the word "shall" and said that any action to reduce the staff would violate the contract.

Adam Loukx, Toledo's acting law director, argued that the issue is a matter not of safety but of money.

He also pointed to a paragraph in the contract that states the minimum staffing requirement "does not preclude consideration by the Department of Fire & Rescue Operations Administration for increases or reductions in the number of companies, or to changes in the types of companies utilized. Therefore, the total number required may vary from time to time according to the number of types of companies in service."

He said that the city still would maintain "services that will adequately protect and serve."

He declined to comment after the hearing.

Mr. Iorio said minimum staffing for firefighters was established in 1988 and that through numerous contracts, the city and union have agreed to keep it at 103. Attempts by the city to change it failed because of the contract, he added.

He said the city is attempting to cut levels during a time when service calls are at an all-time high. In 2008, he said, the department received more than 50,000 calls for service. That number is significantly higher than the approximately 40,000 calls received in 1988 when the minimum manning number was created, he said.

Mr. Iorio pointed out in court and in the complaint filed yesterday that Toledo's staffing levels are significantly lower than those in other Ohio cities.

Cincinnati tops the list with 0.56 firefighter per 1,000 people, he said. Canton staffs 0.47 firefighter per 1,000 people, and Akron staffs 0.39 per 1,000 people. Toledo is at the bottom of the list with 0.33 staffed per 1,000 people.

Fire Capt. Jim Martin, Local 92 president, who was one of six firefighters at the hearing, said the ruling would "keep the public and the members safe for the time being."

He added that the union is willing to work with the city to achieve financial stability, but that has to be accomplished in a way that doesn't compromise safety and response time.

"They were going to put a ladder truck out of service, Ladder 25, and that is the closest ladder truck to the university and to the mall," he said.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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