A group of Black leaders in St. Paul is objecting to the possible elimination of a Black assistant fire chief’s job, saying the unprecedented racial reckoning the capital city experienced this year makes the position essential.
In a letter to city leaders Monday, African American Leadership Council President Tyrone Terrill said his organization, along with the St. Paul Black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, “are extremely concerned” about proposed cuts to the fire department’s budget next year, and the assistant chief position in particular.
“The removal of the position from the budget was unknown to our organizations and should have been communicated,” Terrill wrote. “This is not the time for the Office of the Mayor or the St. Paul City Council to do less for our community.”
The assistant chief position is one of several the department is planning to eliminate next year. It was created as part of a 1994 legal settlement — the result of a lawsuit that a group of Black firefighters brought against the city in 1992, describing discrimination and harassment dating back to 1975.
Since 2015, the job has been held by Gerone Hamilton, whose title is deputy chief of community relations.
At a committee meeting Wednesday, City Council members raised concerns about the decision to cut that position and reassign Hamilton, and asked how it might affect efforts to diversify a department whose top leadership is mostly white and male.
Council Member Jane Prince called Terrill’s letter “very troubling” and noted Hamilton’s track record of community engagement and recruitment work.
“We’re apparently in this budget losing this position, and we’re going to be losing the work that Gerone has done,” she said. “We are going to need some answers on that as we move forward.”
Fire Chief Butch Inks told council members that department leaders agreed to put a Black chief in place as part of the 1994 settlement but are not required to do so now.
Inks said he remains committed to diversifying the department and has met with the Black Ministerial Alliance and “talked through some of the challenges, some of the history.” He said he hopes to eventually reinstate the assistant chief position, which has an annual cost of $187,461 — the equivalent of more than two firefighters, he said.
“We had to set what our priorities were and are and continue to be, and that’s as many responders on the street as possible,” Inks said. He said he considered cutting other administrative deputy chief positions but decided against it because those deputy chiefs respond to fires.
Like nearly every city department, the fire department is facing a painful budget year as the city works to fill a nearly $20 million shortfall. The fire department is anticipating a general fund spending reduction of more than $400,000; other proposed staffing cuts include two arson investigators, an EMS coordinator and a health and wellness coordinator — which Inks said he also hopes to reinstate.
“This is not a proposal from me — this is a presentation,” Inks said. “I don’t propose reducing any of this, but this is what we’re faced with, with the challenges of 2020.”