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Budget cuts. These words have become an integral part of the daily lives of most fire service leaders. As many municipalities, both big and small, are forced to deal with declining revenues and shrinking financial reserves, they are left with little choice but to cut into all aspects of municipal operations, including public safety. This seems to inevitably set off a chain of events that ultimately leads to the use of the ubiquitous yet equally aggravating phrase: "They are asking us to do more with less."
Why do we dislike this phrase so much? First of all, it’s not really true. We have sat in on many budgetary discussions with many elected officials in different cities and not once did anyone ever tell the fire department to cut its budget and accomplish more. It simply didn’t happen. We have never encountered, and we don’t know anyone who ever has encountered, a budget meeting where funds were reduced while raising performance expectations. We typically impose that upon ourselves. We want to do better every year. We want to do more. The city is usually simply saying, "You have less money." Second, and the much larger issue, is the fact that we ask to be treated this way. Not directly, mind you, but indirectly we ask for it. In the face of budget cuts, most fire departments do everything possible to maintain the same or similar levels of service. What they ought to be doing is reducing services every time the budget is reduced.
A Tale of Two Departments
We know of a city that, in the fall of 2008, announced a 20% across-the-board budget reduction. In the weeks that followed that meeting, the fire chief argued that cuts of that magnitude would mean that firefighters would be laid off, response times would suffer and ultimately someone would likely die due to the delayed response. The fire chief met with union officials who were deeply concerned about the thought of layoffs.
The depths of the cuts that this city faced were popular fodder for the local evening news so it was not difficult for the union president to find an audience in the local media. He lamented that the city was toying with the safety of its citizens and the careers of its employees, and that it was unfair of the city to ask the fire department to "do more with less." The union picketed city hall and other venues. Publicly, the fire department appeared obstructive and combative. Privately, they were scrambling to decide how they were going to maintain services. During the same time, nary was a word heard from the police department. No interviews, no media campaigns, no picketing. One had to wonder whether the police department was doing anything. At the next budget meeting, the fire chief explained that emergency negotiations with the union had yielded a short-term plan of agreed-to furlough days and other salary and benefit concessions that, coupled with other line-item budget cuts, would let the department absorb the reduced funding "without any change to service levels."