Despite city’s ruling, Lexington firefighters plan to post protest signs

LEXINGTON, KY &#8211 Lexington firefighters say they will not be deterred from putting up signs protesting equipment brownouts, despite the city’s proclamation that posting the signs violates ethics rules.

“I dare them to violate our First Amendment rights to speak out against a safety issue,” said Chris Bartley, president of Lexington Professional Firefighters Local 526, a union representing about 500 firefighters.

The signs — which read “Today, this Fire Truck will not be responding to your emergency. Want to know why? Call Mayor (Jim) Gray 258-3100” — are in response to a proposed plan to take pieces of equipment out of service temporarily, probably starting in the spring, to deal with staffing and budget shortages.

The city’s public safety commissioner said it would be illegal under the city’s ethics ordinance to post the signs.

“The signs are misleading and nothing more than scare tactics,” according to a written statement from the city, quoting Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason.

A picture of one of the signs, along with a message that said it would be placed in front of fire stations when equipment has been temporarily taken out of service next year, was posted Thursday on Bartley’s Twitter page.

This week, acting Fire Chief Keith Jackson detailed a plan under which some equipment would be “browned out,” or taken out of service, from a few hours to two days to accommodate staffing shortages.

The shortages are likely because 40 firefighters are expected to retire this year — twice as many as usual. Bartley said many of them chose to retire in response to recent cuts at the fire department, including wage freezes, limited overtime and a $100 decrease in the city’s contribution to health insurance as rates increase for many city employees.

It’s unlikely that there will be brownouts before March, when firefighters typically start taking lots of vacation time, officials have said.

“This spring break’s really going to kill us,” Bartley said.

But Mason said in the statement that the brownouts will not put the city at risk.

“The city routinely takes pieces of fire equipment out of service temporarily, to allow for training and other activities. Sometimes a brownout is a matter of a few hours or a single shift. And there are backup stations nearby,” Mason said. “In making decisions to temporarily take equipment out of service, public safety is always top priority.”

Bartley disagreed, saying firefighters can be pulled out of training in an emergency, but the brownouts would mean nobody is assigned to staff some trucks.

“They’re downplaying the safety issue,” he said.

Bartley said firefighters posted similar signs on city property in 2009 and 2010 when entire stations were browned out under the administration of former mayor Jim Newberry.

Then, the city was trying to cut as much as $2.7 million from its budget. Now, the city is trying to save money because of a projected $27 million revenue shortfall for fiscal 2012.

Bartley said that he recognized the budget problems but that the city needs to make cuts elsewhere.

“Cuts in operation and staffing and cuts in the collective bargaining contract have resulted in at least $5 million in cuts already,” he said.

Mason said in the statement that the brownouts have been considered for some time, and that the savings would ultimately help prevent layoffs.

“With an unusually large number of retirements, and large payouts that accompany those retirements, this possibility became reality,” Mason said. “To suggest this action is a surprise is unprofessional.”

From The Lexington Herald-Leader.

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