In an emotional session late Friday morning, the Minneapolis City Council voted to block the firing of 10 firefighters, but Mayor RT Rybak vetoed the measure to keep the firefighters on staff.
The council will need nine votes to override Rybak's veto. The firings were aimed at closing a gap in the city's 2011 budget opened by cuts in state Local Government Aid.
Eight councilmembers, including Meg Tuthill (Ward 10) and Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8) voted for the measure, authored by Councilmembers Sandra Colvin Roy (Ward 12) and Gary Schiff (Ward 9), to move $1.1 million from the city's contingency fund and $300,000 from money budgeted for unfilled staff positions in various city departments to keep the 10 firefighters on the city's payroll until the end of 2012.
"Response time is a phrase that stands in for the thousands and thousands of medical runs done by our fire department every month," said Colvin Roy.
"A five-minute delay is going to seem like an eternity to a family who doesn't know how to do compressions or keep a heart attack patient alive because it's a physically demanding process," she added.
But Rybak said the discussion shouldn't focus on whether to cut the department, but "what cuts should we make to balance your budget."
"If (cuts to the fire department) are of concern, then you should offer a substitute cut," Rybak said. "I won't support any one-time gimmick or shift."Five councilmembers, including Betsy Hodges (Ward 13) and John Quincy (Ward 11), argued with equal emotion in favor of laying off the 10, saying the money Colvin Roy and Schiff used to keep the firefighters would harm various departments and neighborhoods in unexpected ways and would make later cuts worse.
"A fundamental lesson I learned early on on the city council is that the longer time you defer a cut, the deeper it will have to be," said Councilmember Robert Lilligren (Ward 6), emotion creeping into his voice.
The council also directed the fire department to report monthly on the use of overtime and sick leave, with Councilmember Don Samuels (Ward 5) suggesting that firefighters were using sick time to take vacation. Fire Department Chief Alex Johnson denied this but said that sick leave usage does spike in the summer.
In order to make up these shortfalls, Johnson said, he would have to decide on a day-to-day basis whether to park fire trucks on less-busy stations for the day and distribute their crews to fill in for their injured, sick or vacationing co-workers. Assuming the 10 firefighters are let go and the current numbers of injured firefighters doesn't change, Johnson said his department would be short-staffed on 78 out of the 109 days remaining in 2011.
The issue may come before the council again in two weeks.