Last week, the Minneapolis Fire Department laid off 10 firefighters.  It was the result of the city accepting the final budgeted amount from the state for Local Government Aid (LGA), which resulted in $23 million less in income for the city’s general fund. That loss of $23 million has translated to a $1.45 million cut to the fire department. The results of these cuts, as with the blame, are numerous as this city of about 385,000 people is bound to face less public safety service.

[Full disclosure: my brother-in-law is a firefighter in the department–he was not impacted by the layoffs.]

First, the ramifications: According to the department’s own 2010 annual report, the department had 404 sworn personnel, including 180 firefighters. The cutting of the 10 positions translates then to a 5.5% cut in the ranks of the firefighters. But keep in mind that nearly everyone already agrees that the city’s fire department is understaffed, to the point that there are already “sporadic rig closures” and will continue to be more because they struggle to staff at the “adopted Standard of Coverage [which] mandates a minimum daily staffing level of 96.”

Let’s break those numbers down, even charitably offering the assumption that there is an average staff per day of 96 firefighters. The 2010 annual report says that the department responded to 33,601 calls for service, or an average of 92 calls per day. Of these, approximately 3.8 calls per day are for fires, 59.7 are for medical calls, and the rest are other issues, including hazardous material response, and false alarms.

The 2011 budget document points out that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) calls for a standard of 90% of structure fires having 14 firefighters on scene within nine minutes of receiving the call. Year-to-date in 2011, the Minneapolis Fire Department has had a response rate by this standard of 83.3%, a number that almost certainly must go down simply because you cannot assume the number of calls will decrease. For all emergency calls, the department is on scene within five minutes 84% of the time, while the standard there is also 90%.

While it’s the people who do the work of the department, they rely on a great deal of specialized, expensive equipment, including fire trucks. According to the budget report, 19 of these rigs are scheduled to be replaced in the next three years, and 11 of them are past their 15 year life expectancy. There has to be a point here where reliability has to be called into question, even as maintenance and upkeep on older vehicles gets more expensive (just ask me what I’ve spent on my 12-year-old minivan this year).

What’s bothersome here is that while these warnings are tossed about in reports to the city council from the fire department, no one seems genuinely concerned, either for the city’s safety or for the well being for workers who have undergone very specific training to perform a particularly dangerous job.

Now the blame, but with some explanation of that Local Government Aid is. LGA is funding given by the state directly to cities under the theory that a percentage of state income tax paid by people in cities could be given back to the cities in order to discourage or elmininate the need for property tax increases. Since 2002, the city assures us, LGA to Minneapolis has been cut a total of $351 million, resulting in a shift in funding of the city’s general fund from LGA to property taxes (40% LGA and 25% property taxes in 2003 to 23% LGA and 44% property taxes in 2011).

With this last budget bill, we’ve seen the lines that the opposite ends of the political spectrum have drawn in the sand, and here, on a very real, local level, we see the results.

The city leadership (both the Mayor and city council) argue that the state budget is entirely to blame, yet this argument is obviously BS. The city has options: increase property taxes more, cut spending in other areas, delay projects, or eliminate other government positions (I will maintain until the day I die that all organizations in the world insist in far too much management: the workers know how to work and how to do their job, and you bozos simply get in the way my trying to tell us how to do something that you wouldn’t be able to do if you tried). I will agree with the conservatives to some degree that cutting spending right now is the way to go–but not with the sole purpose of shrinking government, because government does many jobs that the private sector will not do because you can’t turn a profit doing it.

Yet, I’m a little concerned at the city’s ability to manage a budget when I take a look at the funding of the public library, which very nearly dried up until a merger was arranged with the county. Taken as a microcosm, you can see the similarity: the library built a new central library building, and then almost immediately after opening, needed to cut back the number of days per week that it could be open because the funding was not there to support the staffing levels. What happened there? Did we build the library and suddenly forget how many employees we had? Sure there were cuts to funding, but the library budget wasn’t that big a part of the city’s overall budget. These days, cutting spending in political budgets seems to be easiest when you cut smaller programs–or at least cut the programs that have smaller budgets, in the hope that no one will actually notice. In larger cities like Minneapolis, police and fire services are assumed by the people living there, and you rarely give it a thought, unless you’re plugged into how the city works. I’ve been amazed over the years to talk to friends and coworkers who live in the suburbs, most of whom are aghast to learn that their fire departments are largely volunteer forces. Yes, they assumed they had paid staff that were there, 24×7, to see to it that their home would not burn down.

Now granted, Minneapolis has been very lucky to not have had a major fire or emergency in several years: the 35W bridge collapse was probably the largest disaster in several years, and before that, the biggest incident I can think of was the Thanksgiving fire at the old Northwestern Bank building downtown. But the law of averages would dictate that someday something major has to happen, and the question facing us is whether we’ve made the right decisions to staff, train and equip our fire department to face that challenge.

At the same time, some of the public employee unions have been inflexible about their contracts. Very few people are left in the country who have pensions as part of their employment, yet these along with health care benefit costs have turned into untouchable parts of those contracts. I’m all in favor of paying firefighters, police and teachers every dime they’ve earned because they’re all invaluable parts of any community. But their pension is not an entitlement, and if the increasing costs of maintaining it at previously promised levels is the cause of budget problems, then some accommodation should be reached by the two sides. Minneapolis claims that due to underperformance by the pension fund, it is about $7 million under it’s required funding level to fulfill its obligations. So if the city and its unions agreed to cut that debt in half, the 10 firefighter positions could have been saved with another $2 million in savings to spare.

The final piece of the blame lands squarely on the conservatives who insist that taxation is wrong. I’ll say it again: there are things that governmental agencies do in this country that no one else will do, and like it or not, we’ve come to rely on those services. Schools, fire protection, care of military veterans, street repair and maintenance, and livability initiatives are vital parts of governments everywhere. Because a city could not operate if its streets were never paved nor plowed, or if there were no parks or stoplights or libraries. There are many conservatives who claim wrongly that private institutions can do some of these tasks, but what is in it for them? Libraries offer books, study space, community space, even public computers as a free service to the public. And the need for libraries has been highlighted as an increasingly vital need with the higher rates of unemployment: people are checking out books and movies for free, using the computers to search for jobs, and in extreme cases, the homeless are using libraries to get off of the street for some of their day.

The conservative view that cities in the state should get no LGA is purely short-sighted: they insist that local governments don’t need the money, and that the state could cut taxes if this funding is reduced. But at the same time, they say that cities need to reduce taxes to promote job growth and business development. But how can jobs be created and businesses develop is there are fewer trained workers coming from the schools, or the roads to get there are bad, or there is no mass transit to get employees to those jobs, or if the business burns to the ground because the fire department couldn’t get 14 people there in nine minutes?

I know. I’ve rambled on. If any of you read this at all, you may have stopped within the first few paragraphs. But if you’ve made it here, I give you credit. As I’ve said before, everyone in government is to blame for these budget crises, and we as the electorate are to blame for selecting completely ineffectual leadership based solely on promises and slogans and not on substantive, realistic governance. On the one hand, the liberal city leadership needs to stop whining and figure out how to fund the fire department at the levels that are considered a national standard in order to protect its citizens. But on the other hand, conservatives in government need to realize you cannot simply shrink government without some sort of backup plan or exit strategy. Hopefully we won’t need to have a major disaster in the city to realize how wrong both sides are.

See you tomorrow.