Fire Chief Jay Behling has not participated in his firefighters’ public campaign in recent weeks to restore minimum staffing levels trimmed in the 2007 budget, but he already fought that battle and lost, he said Tuesday.
He said he had argued during budget meetings to retain a minimum staffing level of seven firefighters per shift before the Common Council cut that figure to six and made it effective Dec. 1. Since then, the South Milwaukee Firefighters Union Local 1633 has conducted a literature drop, and it will hold a public meeting at 7 tonight at The Hickory Inn, 2703 S. Chicago Ave., to discuss safety concerns.
Behling said he spoke with Mayor Thomas Zepecki and every alderman prior to the $200,000 cut that came out of the Fire Department’s $2.5 million budget when he was asked “if this was an unsafe condition.” “I responded by saying this is uncharted waters,” Behling said. “I did not know. I preferred not to go there.” Zepecki said Tuesday, “Like all chiefs and all administrators, we’d like to have maximum levels, but the money’s not there.” The head of the firefighters union, Glen McCoy, said last month that Zepecki cut the department’s minimum staffing in retaliation for the union’s winning an arbitration ruling in November. He said the change put firefighters’ lives and the lives of residents at risk. McCoy could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Zepecki said the arbitration ruling “automatically punched a hole in the ’07 budget.” “We ended up on the losing end,” he said. “We looked at our options. This was the only option we had other than taking manpower out of the staff.” No jobs were cut from the 2007 budget. Zepecki said the change was needed to stay below the state’s 2% levy increase cap. Firefighters received raises in the arbitration ruling of 3% effective Jan. 1, 2006, and 3% effective Jan. 1 of this year, according to City Administrator Tami Mayzik. Mayzik said Tuesday that there is a misconception among the public regarding the trim in staffing. The minimum number comes into effect only when firefighters are off duty for vacations, sick leave or medical leave, she said. Under the change, instead of calling in overtime at seven people, the department will call in overtime when the staff goes below six, she said. Otherwise, the department is staffed with two shifts of eight firefighters and one shift of nine firefighters, she said. Behling said the nine-person shift is currently short because of a firefighter out under worker’s compensation.