Omaha Union Sues City Over Staffing

OMAHA, Neb. --

Omaha's fire union is taking the city to court, claiming the city allowed fire department staffing to fall below contractual minimum levels.

The union is operating under a contract backed up by a state ruling that said the city must have at least 658 firefighters. With recent retirements, city staff levels dropped to 649.

"We have elected, as managers, rather than put full-time firefighters in those nine slots, we're going to use overtime," said Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle.

Suttle said contractual language allows the city to not hire new firefighters, an option that he said he's taking during the budget crunch.

"We're looking at it right now more from the perspective of existing cash flow as we manage ourselves through this 2010 $12 million shortfall," Suttle said.

The union claims the level is unsafe and has filed a new motion with the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations to stop it.

"Any time you start tinkering with numbers that are tried and true, you do run the risk of compromising public safety," said fire union leader Steve LeClair.

He said he's dubious about the mayor's motives.

"There's this recurring theme coming out of City Hall that, 'We're not going to follow the contracts. They've become too expensive, so we're not doing to follow them anymore,'" he said.

LeClair said he plans to meet with Suttle on Thursday to discuss the issue.

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