Ten Minneapolis firefighters got calls from Fire Chief Alex Jackson on Tuesday telling them they are losing their jobs as the result of state budget cuts.
Even more firefighters might have gotten laid off, but Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Barbara Johnson said they're urging the council to dip into the city's reserves for $1.75 million to save 31 additional firefighter jobs and avoid any police layoffs.
While Rybak and Johnson blame the Legislature for skimping on local government aid, a frustrated fire union President Mark Lakosky put the blame on Rybak. The number of sworn firefighters has dropped from about 469 in 2003, which was Rybak's first budget, to 401. He warned that firefighters will be stretched even thinner and it will take them longer to respond to emergency calls.
"It's amazing how public safety has been cut each year under Rybak," Lakosky said. "But when there's some fluff program, he finds money for it."
The layoffs were no surprise. Rybak's budget anticipated 32 layoffs in the Fire Department this year, but he and the council put money aside to keep them on the payroll if the city got its full allotment of local government aid. The Legislature froze local government aid at last year's level, meaning the city received $23.5 million less than Rybak had hoped.
The firefighters who lost their jobs have been on a layoff bubble almost since their hiring in 2008. One of them, firefighter Johnathon McClellan, said his mind went blank when Jackson called: "You go through all the training and go through the firefighter hoops in hopes of doing a career. When you go through all that, you don't anticipate that this is going to happen."
Rybak spokesman John Stiles said that even with the cuts, the city's fire response times compare favorably to that of fire departments in neighboring cities.
The Police Department expects its budget to be in balance by the end of the year through retirements, and the city will use money from its reserves to avoid short-term layoffs, budget officials said. But fewer firefighters have chosen to retire, likely due to the poor economy and uncertainty over a pending vote on a fire pension merger, Jackson said.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438