Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's 2011 budget proposal calls for at least 32 cuts to the fire department. Many in the department think personnel levels are already too low, making it more dangerous than ever to be a fire fighter in Minneapolis. Here is an abbreviated version of our interview with Rybak on the cuts.
CP: Many firefighters are concerned that lower staffing levels are making their jobs even more dangerous. Do you share this belief?
Rybak: The firefighters have a dangerous job no matter what, and the more people we have, the safer it is. I'll do everything I can to help on that. So I'm in agreement with them that we need more firefighters.
Nobody needs to prove to me that we need more resources in the fire department. We do. We also need more resources in police and every other part of the city and we need lower property taxes. And my job is to make those tough decisions and we'll do everything we can, but there is no free lunch when we face these massive cuts.
CP: So you do agree it has become more dangerous?
Rybak: I might argue with the degree that they talk about, but we're in agreement. We want more firefighters.
CP: Similar question. Statistics also show that the fire department has consistently fallen short of response-time goals. Many firefighters I've spoken to say the response time has suffered due to low staff. Do you agree with this?
Rybak: We are still delivering to the communities. Eighty-six percent of emergency events in the city last year we responded to in five minutes or less.
CP: But isn't the goal at least 90 percent?
Rybak: Our goal is to get to 90, and considering what we've had to do, I'm proud of the work the city and the firefighters have been doing. We're going to do our best to get as many resources as we can get to them, but the sad fact of the reality is, when you have massive cuts, there's consequences to them.
We have become more effective over time with the use of our resources. Fire response is primarily about people, which is connected to how many dollars we put in. I'm proud of our department's ability to deliver effective fire services even when facing cuts.
We're going to continue to do everything we can to improve the efficiency of the fire service, but if there's another massive round of state cuts, there will be challenges.
CP: So will response-time suffer if we continue to cut?
Rybak: Yes. Yes it will. There is no free lunch with massive cuts to local communities, Minneapolis or any others. And when people at the capitol stand up and make these massive cuts and pretend there's no consequence, they're just not connected with what's happening in Minneapolis and cities across the state. CP: Why not apply for the SAFER grant [SAFER is a federal grant allocated to fire departments not meeting national standards]?
Rybak: I'm looking for any help we can get for replacing the state aide cuts, but the SAFER grant has some strings attached that could create an even bigger problem next year.
It requires you to guarantee staffing levels, which I can't promise if the state is about to make massive cuts to the city. We are very likely to apply for it last year when it will make more sense once we know more about our long term financial situation.
CP: When all is said and done with the budget, how many firefighters do you realistically think will be laid off?
Rybak: Our goal is to lay off no one. We're hoping to have enough people taking the retirement incentive that we won't have a layoff. CP: Is that realistic?
My job is to make some very tough decisions in a tough period of time, and I'm not nuts about it, but I believe we're being as responsible as we can to balance all these needs in the wake of huge state cuts.
For more on cuts to the fire department, follow the paper trail.