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Police, Fire Unions Use Fear to Protect Turf

By Kevin Osborne · September 30th, 2009 · Porkopolis
When he was on trial in Nuremberg after World War II, Nazi leader Hermann Goering told a panel of judges how clever officials could manipulate the public to do their bidding.

“Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to do the bidding of the leaders. That is easy,” Goering said. “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger.”

The Luftwaffe commander was referring to persuading a reluctant population to go to war, but the same scare tactics apply to most matters of public safety. Above all, people want security and, if it seems threatened, they will panic and do almost anything.

We saw that nationally after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and we’re now seeing it locally in this fall’s race for mayor and Cincinnati City Council.

Because a council majority led by Mayor Mark Mallory played hardball in winning concessions from the police and firefighter unions, those two organizations are angry and desperately trying to whip the public into a frenzy. It’s all part of an effort to defeat those politicians at the polls and avoid potentially steeper cuts next year.

Savvy readers know how this situation began: With the city facing a $28 million deficit this year and a possible $40 million shortfall in 2010 due to the economic downturn, Cincinnati officials sought cuts in every department to avoid laying off some City Hall workers.

Fire Chief Robert Wright moved in July to temporarily shut down four of his department’s 40 fire companies this year and save about $2 million. “Companies” is firefighter slang for a ladder track, a pumper or a heavy rescue unit and the four people who work on each. Those workers were transferred to other duties, cutting down on overtime costs. By doing so, firefighters avoided taking a six-day, unpaid furlough. Their union leaders grumbled but agreed.

In contrast, the police union refused the furlough plan but didn’t offer any cost-saving measures of its own. Instead, it questioned whether the city even had a deficit despite the fact that hundreds of local governments nationwide are having similar financial problems.

As a result, a council majority said the Police Department should expect 138 layoffs — all positions added in the last few years and that weren’t requested by the police chief — unless the union offered up $2.6 million in other cuts.

Around this time, Councilman Jeff Berding — not part of the majority — pandered to the union by publicly urging City Council to accept a “no layoffs pledge” for police this year and in 2010.

The majority said the pledge was absurd unless the union agreed to some concessions in return. The tactic worked, the union accepted some cuts and Berding was unendorsed by the local Democratic Party.

All that actually was the easy part. The tougher task is next year, when more savings need to be found. The police and firefighter unions are on the warpath, hoping to chip away at the slim five-member council majority that insisted on cuts.

Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) President Kathy Harrell is making the rounds at neighborhood groups, stumping against the five. Meanwhile, International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) President Marc Monahan mailed 3,000 flyers to residents urging their defeat.

Also, Monihan’s union unendorsed Councilman Greg Harris, an appointee seeking his first full term, for recommending changes to how ambulance service is operated.

Harris wants to separate ambulance service from the city’s firefighting service. Currently, a firefighting vehicle and an ambulance respond to all calls, although about 84 percent of the calls are medical-related, with only 16 percent being fire-related.

Separating ambulance service, along with consolidating emergency dispatch service with Hamilton County, would improve response time while saving Cincinnati taxpayers millions of dollars, Harris said. The city could hire more ambulance employees and reassign some firefighters with EMT training, buy more ambulances and provide a better emergency medical system for Cincinnati.

The firefighters union, however, opposes this change because it likely would eliminate several firefighting positions and prompt the re-purposing of some firehouses.

“We need to start asking the hard questions as to why on a daily basis we are sending fire trucks to repeatedly respond to non-fire-related medical emergencies,” Harris said. “When most of the demand is for medical, not fire, then ambulances should be at the front lines.

“These are the kinds of changes we need to make if we want to close a $40 million budget gap next year while improving service to our citizens. It can be done, but council must have the spine to stand up against entrenched power. The firefighters union is trying to make an example of me. They will fear-monger and say I am anti-firefighter and anti-safety, just as the FOP is now doing (to others).”

To be sure, there’s waste to be cut from the police and fire departments. Various committees over the years have made recommendations to streamline their operations, but the departments have remained sacred cows and off-limits for the belt-tightening going on elsewhere at City Hall.

Like many private companies, about 80 percent of the city’s budget is personnel costs, with the vast majority of the funds allocated for police and fire, both of which are represented by “powerful unions with great political influence,” Harris said.

During the budget showdown, restaurateur and publicity hog Jeff Ruby paid for a full-page ad in a Sunday Enquirer that criticized the five council members — Harris, Laketa Cole, David Crowley, Roxanne Qualls and Cecil Thomas — who demanded the union concessions. Oddly, Ruby’s ad praised Mallory, even though it was his plan.

In the ad, Ruby claimed the police layoffs occurred (they didn’t) and that Council hired a tree trimmer (delayed), bought recycling containers (didn’t happen) and hired a climate protection coordinator (which is a part-time position funded by a restricted federal grant).

Here’s a tip, Mr. Ruby: Put down your cigar and martini and do some research before you flap your gums. You will look less ridiculous if you follow this advice.

Times are tough and almost everyone is cutting back on their spending. I don’t need to tell most of you that, as you’re living it. I know I am.

The motto of police and fire departments is supposed to be “protect and serve,” not deflect and blame. It’s time for the unions to step up and do their share.

PORKOPOLIS TIP LINES: 513-665-4700 (EXT.147) or pork@citybeat.com

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