Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's office says the position will save lives, but others say it's a misplaced priority over the fire department.
While its budget problems have had the most visible effect on fire staffing, the city hasn't stopped hiring. In fact, five jobs are currently being advertised.
The mayor's office argues that the new coordinator will make the city safer for cyclists and pedestrians, but council President Barb Johnson said it is a "tempting" target for extra revenue to save firefighter jobs.
"We'll look at that. We'll look at all the general fund positions that we have currently," Johnson said. "Because a majority of the council wants to maintain these 10 firefighters and not lay them off."
On Friday, the council voted 8-5 to use one-time funds to keep the firefighters, but Rybak opposed using that money to "plug a systemic budget gap" and vetoed the measure. The city's fire chief now warns that response times may increase as a result.
The coordinator will earn between $61,000 and $84,000 a year and will serve as the point person for bicycle and pedestrian issues on transportation projects. A number of public works employees now handle bike and pedestrian issues separately, many of them lacking the necessary expertise, city officials said. The money for the position came from unfilled part-time positions in public works, said Steve Kotke, the city's public works director.
"Is fire more important than this? Yeah. To the tune of 380 times more people doing that work than this work," said Peter Wagenius, policy director in the mayor's office. "But if we can prevent an unnecessary fatality through this work, we're going to do it."
But the firefighters union leader said it's an example of misplaced priorities. Mark Lakosky, president of Minneapolis Firefighters Local 82, said the number of firefighters has dropped steadily during Rybak's time in office.
"When do you stop funding all these fluff programs if we're really prioritizing?" Lakosky said.
In addition to the bicycle coordinator, the city is looking to hire a database engineer, a stationary engineer, an internal auditor and a manager of intellectual properties for the police department.
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732 Twitter: @StribRoper