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No Layoffs at Fire Department as Budget is Slashed $600,000

UPDATE: 
The actual resolution approved regarding the fire department indicated that nine positions would be eliminated instead of just the ones mentioned in acting Chief Mathew's presentation. In all, nine positions will be eliminated through attrition including 3 captain positions, 3 lieutenant positions, and 3 engineer positions. Some of those positions were supposed to be available, according to contract, to members of the union who tested for promotions. Original post is below.
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"Alternate staffing is really the only way to deal with a $500,000 budget cut," said acting Fire Chief Dan Mathew as a nearly four-hour long Covington City Commission meeting was getting into full swing. Mathew was tasked with finding $500,000 in cuts from the fire department's budget, as was the police department and as was all the other departments at City Hall collectively. "Ninety-five percent of our budget is salary and benefits. It makes it very difficult to find large savings. We don't make widgets. We have a mission. We protect lives and property. Amy decrease in that number of people is obviously going to affect the level of service that we provide."
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The demand for cuts comes on the heels of health care concessions by the public employees unions, including the firefighters, that are expected save the City $10 million over the next eight years. Even with those savings and even with the $5 million in expected savings from the consolidation of Covington's dispatch center with Kenton County's, more cuts were needed. "When we presented budgets (for fiscal year 2012-13) we had another $1.5 million between fire, police and all others," said Mayor Chuck Scheper, explaining that each of those entities represented about a third of the deficit. "When we finished (union negotiations) I was very clear that was only going to solve half the $20 million budget problem and I said we would need to keep working together."
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The fire department has also managed to reduce its unscheduled overtime cost to $218,000 in 2012, less than half of what it charged in 2011 and more than $600,000 less than 2009. Additionally, the amount of money spent on continuous training for the city's firefighters has been reduced to nearly nothing. Between 2006 and 2008 the department budgeted between $8,600 and $9,400 on training while last year it showed a deficit of $616 in that area. Now the department is forced to make changes that will be more visible in the community.
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The minimum manning (number of firefighters on staff per shift) will be reduced from 27 to 26 while three captain positions, one lieutenant position, and one engineer position will be eliminated from the department. Those positions are currently unfilled. Also, two firefighter positions are expected to open up through forthcoming resignations and those positions will also go unfilled. Combined with a new effort to reduce unscheduled overtime across the department and with the salary, pension contributions, health care benefits, and other costs associated with employees, the total net savings proposed by Mathew add up to $607,000.
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The plan also proposes bringing in three new recruits and possibly hiring a fire marshal to handle the inspection duties previously done by one of the captains. The proposal passed the City Commission by a vote of 4-1. "This is not about the professionalism of the fire department," the mayor said, reiterating his call for a regional approach to firefighting. "We've only got so much revenue to go around. We're spending sixty-five percent more for services than other cities our size. We can blame that on the geography, we've got urban/suburban, but we've got to make tough choices. We've got to get to a sustainable budget so we can grow the city going forward."
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"I still believe the best long term solution is a regional approach. I hope we can create an ongoing dialogue to move that initiative forward," the mayor said. 
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The secretary/treasurer of the IAFF Local 38, the union for Covington firefighters, explained that during contract negotiations it was never discussed that a captain would be replaced with a fire marshal. Mike Clendenen was also concerned with promotional exams some of the firefighters have taken in hopes of securing a promotion that may no longer exist. "The best Local 38 can ask is that we live up to our agreements, both sides," he said. "We reached across the table, shook hands, and Local 38 plans to live up to its end." Clendenen contends that there were ways to save money with the same number of people on the fire department before the cuts were adopted. 
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Firefighter Jimmy Adams also expressed frustration, arguing that he spent $8,000 of his own money to bring in trainers from New York to further the education of local firefighters. He argued that one of the changes involves the department's safety officer. "Who's going to make sure the building is structurally safe, that the fire is not spreading? We're going to have to bring people in and once again in the Facebook world we'll get criticized," Adams said, referencing an ongoing online feud between firefighters and City Commission Steve Frank and others. Frank apologized before the meeting for referring to some firefighters as "assholes" on a Facebook page. "To have this chain around my neck that I'm a union thug, these petty apologies. I didn't know politics was like golf. I didn't know that there were mulligans."
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Commissioner Shawn Masters was the lone vote against the proposal and he cited recent raises to non-union employees as his motivation. "We keep taking more from and more from this group of people and giving to this group over," Masters said. 
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PHOTO: Acting Fire Chief Dan Mathew