Ayers, Council clash over fire budget

Words of de­fense: Fire Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers re­sponds to ques­tions from City Coun­cil mem­bers about his de­part­ment’s op­er­a­tions. MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHO­TOS

Six minutes.

That’s how long it took Phil­adelphia Fire Com­mis­sion­er Lloyd Ay­ers and his aides to cal­cu­late a re­sponse to one spe­cif­ic ques­tion by City Coun­cil­man Mark Squilla dur­ing a City Hall budget hear­ing last Wed­nes­day.

Squilla, who rep­res­ents South Philly and the River Wards, wanted to know how many va­cant of­ficer po­s­i­tions there are in the fire de­part­ment — that is, how many un­filled lieu­ten­ant, cap­tain, bat­talion chief and deputy chief jobs.

Ay­ers, who had already fielded a lit­any of in­quir­ies about staff­ing, train­ing and over­time ex­pendit­ures, did not know the num­ber that Squilla sought. The com­mis­sion­er paused, then con­sul­ted one of his depu­ties.

“We’ll have it for you in a minute,” Ay­ers said.

What fol­lowed was a dia­logue that high­lighted what oth­er Coun­cil mem­bers later de­scribed as a frus­trat­ing lack of trans­par­ency in the fire de­part­ment’s op­er­a­tions and, sim­il­arly, in the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­fus­al to im­ple­ment a labor con­tract awar­ded to fire­fight­ers through ar­bit­ra­tion.

“They’re say­ing that they make the de­cisions and they’re not go­ing to tell you what their meth­od­o­logy is be­cause they want to make the de­cisions. That’s not ac­cept­able,” said at-large Coun­cil­man Den­nis O’Bri­en.

“You have a bind­ing ar­bit­ra­tion award — fund it. You have va­can­cies — fill them. And you have pro­fes­sion­al train­ing that’s not hap­pen­ing. Fix them.”

Ay­ers ul­ti­mately in­formed Squilla that there would be 32 of­ficer va­can­cies in the fire de­part­ment by June, in­clud­ing 14 lieu­ten­ants, sev­en cap­tains, eight bat­talion chiefs and three deputy chiefs. Mean­while, the de­part­ment con­tin­ues to reel from the on-duty deaths of Capt. Mi­chael Good­win on April 6, as well as Lt. Robert Neary and Fire­fight­er Daniel Sweeney on April 9, 2012.

The de­part­ment has lists of ap­proved and qual­i­fied can­did­ates for those jobs. Yet, Ay­ers said, he’s de­term­ined that the lists are too old or “stale” and should be re­con­sti­t­uted via new pro­mo­tion­al test­ing.  The new lists wouldn’t be ready un­til Ju­ly or Au­gust, pos­sibly Septem­ber.

Squilla called for a bet­ter ex­plan­a­tion.

“What is the reas­on we are not filling these va­can­cies?” he asked. “You have a list, what do you need a test­ing pro­cess for? You have a list of people.”

Ay­ers replied: “We have a test­ing pro­cess in place and as soon as that test­ing pro­cess is com­plete, we’ll com­plete filling out the rest of the va­can­cies or any more va­can­cies that oc­cur.”

Squilla didn’t un­der­stand the re­sponse.

“Does that make any sense to any­body here?” he said, be­fore con­clud­ing, “That’s very scary to us and I think to most of the pub­lic. We have all these va­can­cies and we’re go­ing to make a new test?”

Coun­cil­man Bri­an O’Neill of the Far North­east was sim­il­arly stu­pefied by the re­sponses he got when he asked Ay­ers to ex­plain why the fire de­part­ment spent $7.2 mil­lion ex­tra in over­time last year, bey­ond what had been ap­proved in the op­er­at­ing budget. The de­part­ment’s fisc­al 2013 budget was about $218.5 mil­lion. It’s re­quest­ing $219.1 mil­lion for 2014.

Ay­ers said over­time spend­ing was high­er be­cause the de­part­ment didn’t hire new fire­fight­ers as soon as it had planned. A new Fire Academy class was delayed for sev­er­al months, so those new hires were not avail­able for duty as soon as ex­pec­ted.

“Is this a nor­mal range of be­ing over [budget]?” O’Neill asked.

“No, it’s not,” Ay­ers replied, be­fore item­iz­ing oth­er factors that con­trib­uted to over­time cost over­runs. “It’s a myri­ad of things: in­jur­ies, sick­ness, long-term sick­ness, all of those things. … There was a new pro­tocol where we had to ex­tend train­ing for an­oth­er week for ca­dets.”

“Can you get us a list of those items?” O’Neill said.

The con­ver­sa­tion shif­ted be­fore Ay­ers ac­know­ledged that re­quest.

At a dif­fer­ent stage of the hear­ing, O’Bri­en com­plained that he’s been wait­ing six months for the de­part­ment to ful­fill sev­er­al of his re­quests for in­form­a­tion. Spe­cific­ally, he wants to know why the de­part­ment has not con­duc­ted train­ing classes for lieu­ten­ants and cap­tains since 2007. He also wants to know what the de­part­ment spent on train­ing last year.

The de­part­ment claims that fire­fight­ers trained for more than 317,000 hours last year, but it has been un­able to pro­duce a cost ana­lys­is, O’Bri­en said.

At-large Coun­cil­man Dav­id Oh quer­ied Ay­ers about an­oth­er hot-but­ton top­ic, brown-outs. That’s the con­tro­ver­sial pro­gram where the de­part­ment shuts down se­lec­ted com­pan­ies tem­por­ar­ily on a ro­tat­ing basis. Ay­ers said the pro­gram saves the city $3.8 mil­lion per year, but that sav­ings is cred­ited to the gen­er­al fund. It doesn’t go back to fire de­part­ment op­er­a­tions.

“Do you be­lieve that the brown-outs should con­tin­ue?” Oh asked.

“If I could have the brown-outs dis­con­tin­ued, I would dis­con­tin­ue them. Right now … they’re con­trib­ut­ing to the budget and the safety of the cit­izens has not been di­min­ished,” Ay­ers said. •

The fire com­mis­sion­er said it would be the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision to provide fund­ing for the elim­in­a­tion of brown-outs. ••

On the Web:

For video clips from the Phil­adelphia Fire De­part­ment budget hear­ing at City Coun­cil, vis­it the North­east Times You­Tube chan­nel at www.you­tube.com/user/North­east­Times

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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