The Munjoy Hill fire station would lose a fire truck under the budget proposed by Portland City Manager Jon Jennings, the president of the firefighters union said this week.

Chris Thomson, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 740, which represents about 226 Portland firefighters, urged city councilors at Monday night’s meeting to consider an alternative plan being drafted by the union.

“We believe we can come in with the same budget and keep Engine 1 open,” Thomson said. “We’d like an opportunity to sit down and look at the numbers, because if our numbers are not correct we’d like to know why they’re not. We believe they’re solid.”

The Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization also raised concerns about the loss of Engine 1.

Fire Chief Keith Gautreau said the station would continue to have an ambulance and a ladder truck, along with five firefighters on duty at all times. “That station is staying there – it’s not closing,” Gautreau said. 

Jennings has proposed a $206.6 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, with a goal of limiting property tax increases for municipal services to the rate of inflation, 3 percent. The proposal includes a $939,000 increase for the fire department, which would have an $18.2 million budget.

Jennings did not mention any structural changes to the fire department in an April 5 interview about the budget or in his April 8 budget communication to the City Council.

“It’s an operational change that doesn’t need budget approval,” said City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin. “If it was a layoff, we would have included it. It’s a reallocation of existing services.”

Munjoy Hill is one of seven mainland fire stations, not including the marine or airport divisions.

The station at 134 Congress St. now houses an ambulance, a ladder truck and a fire engine. It’s about a half-mile from Central Station, the busiest in the state.

Central Station, at 380 Congress St., contains an ambulance, a fire engine and a car that are in service. It also has a backup fire engine and two backup ambulances, according to a 2017 study of the city’s fire facilities.

Gautreau informed fire department staff of the proposal in an April 11 memo obtained by the Portland Press Herald. He said his request for six additional positions and an additional $650,000 in overtime funding was not approved.

As a result, Engine 1, which is based on Munjoy Hill, would be decommissioned. The 12 firefighters would be reassigned to cover administrative functions and create a pool of five firefighters to cover open shifts to reduce overtime, among other things, he said.

“This year’s budget was every bit as challenging as last year and in some ways more challenging,” Gautreau said. “We’ve asked several times, and there is no extra money and no extra people without raising taxes considerably.”

Portland Fire Chief Keith Gautreau says that even if the Munjoy Hill station loses Engine 1, it will have an ambulance, a ladder truck and five firefighters on duty at all times. “That station is staying there – it’s not closing,” he said. Press Herald photo by Ben McCanna

Gautreau said that, as of April 11, 80 percent of the department’s budget had been expended, and overtime spending was at 140 percent of what was budgeted.

The current budget, which runs through June 30, includes nearly $930,000 for overtime for field operations, which was 15 percent lower than the nearly $1.1 million allocated the previous fiscal year.

Calls for service for Engine 1 have ranged from 1,631 in 2014 to a high of 2,015 in 2017, while Engine 5 at Central Station has ranged from 3,380 calls in 2014 to 3,560 in 2017, according to data provided by the union.

In 2018, Engine 1 responded to 1,895 calls, while Engine 5 responded to nearly 3,407.

Gautreau said Engine 1 has one of the lowest call volumes in the city, but Thomson noted that it provides important backup to the busier station downtown.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said he learned about the proposal to decommission Engine 1 over the weekend. He did not comment on the proposal, or the city manager’s decision not to highlight it during his budget presentation. “I look forward to discussing it tomorrow night at Finance,” he said in a text, referring to the council’s finance committee.

Jay Norris, president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization, said he has received about a dozen calls and emails since Monday’s council meeting. He may consider asking his board of directors to support a resolution opposing the proposal.

“Like most of my community, I generally defer to the greater good of Portland, but on this issue, it’s a no-brainer for us,” Norris said. “We must keep exactly what we have at Engine Company 1 and will support any collaboration or outcome that supports that.”

Fire department overtime costs are a perennial issue for the city. But Thomson said that’s because the department is not adequately staffed to cover shifts for firefighters who are on vacation, sick leave, on-duty training, or family, medical or military leave.

Thomson said he plans to present councilors with an alternative proposal when it reviews the fire budget on Wednesday. He said the proposal calls for using some – if not all – of the $1.04 million budgeted for overtime next year to hire additional firefighters.

Thomson said that hiring more firefighters would greatly reduce, if not eliminate, most overtime in the department. The union says that fire department overtime has been over budget by an average of 40 percent a year since 2003, with authorized staffing dropping from 242 to 226.

While some believe that firefighters use overtime to boost their salaries, Thomson said that’s not the case. He said firefighters often are forced to work overtime.

“The overtime issue in Portland for the fire department is that it has not been budgeted for what we need to run the fire department for 15 years running,” he said Monday. “It’s been in the newspaper, as everybody knows, and it’s been really detrimental to us as an organization to our motivation, and I’m sure it’s caused you all a lot of grief.”

It’s not the first time crews based at the Munjoy Hill station have felt targeted by City Hall.

Back in 2015, firefighters protested a decision by City Hall to periodically take the station’s ambulance out of service to save money. Crews posted a hand-painted sign saying “CLOSED PER CITY GOVT” in front of the station.

The episode highlighted an impasse in contract negotiations. Firefighters had been working without a contract for over a year at that point.

The following year, the union and the city came to an agreement on a four-year contract designed to reduce overtime by filling vacancies more quickly. Firefighters also agreed to work an additional 12 hours at straight pay to rein in overtime.

Gautreau said those measures reduced overtime for one year, but since then overtime has risen, with an average of 10-12 people being out on family medical leave each week.

Last year, the council approved a one-year contract extension. And Jennings said that former Assistant City Manager Michael Sauschuck was working with Gautreau to conduct an internal review of fire operations that would inform this year’s budget.

In highlighting the budget’s impact on Munjoy Hill, Thomson said his goal wasn’t to cast blame on anyone in City Hall, or scare the public about what a station closure might mean.

“I’m not here to spell gloom and doom and tell everybody the world is going to fall apart,” Thomson said. “That’s not why I’m here. I’m not here to slam the fire chief or the manager for the work they have done. I can appreciate how difficult this is. But that is 1,800 calls up at that station that someone is going to have to answer.”

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