Firefighters upset about getting silent treatment at UG fire study meeting

by Mary Rupert

Firefighters turned out in large numbers for a Unified Government Commission special session Thursday that took aim at trading shifts and other items.

They did not get to speak at the meeting, and that has ruffled some feathers.

Bob Wing, business manager for the International Association of Firefighters, Local 64, said today that a commissioner had requested that they be allowed to speak, and they were expecting to have that opportunity, but then they were told that they couldn’t speak.

“I rearranged my schedule to this (out-of-town) conference to attend that meeting last night,” Wing said. “A lot of taxpayers were there who didn’t get their say last night.”

Wing said he views the fire study as a budget-cutting document, aimed at cutting 5 percent of the costs from the Fire Department.

Fire study consultants presented a plan to the commissioners at the 5 p.m. special session Thursday that addressed several issues, including firefighters trading shifts.

Mayor Mark Holland told the commission that the trends in public safety spending in Kansas City, Kan., were unsustainable. Public safety takes up 60 percent of the UG’s budget, he said. Spending trends were averaging about 40 percent in public safety, he added.

“These aren’t issues that you take lightly,” Mayor Holland said. He said he was trying to be fiscally responsible while maintaining the safety of employees and the community. He said the fire study is not about individuals, but about systems.

Fire station locations

The fire study stated that fire stations were not always in the correct location, he said, that some of them were located before automobiles were prevalent, and some of them were inherited township fire stations.

The study recommends more fire stations for the increasing population in the Piper area, and less stations for the eastern side of Kansas City, Kan. For example, a station in the Fairfax area would close, and the consultants have stated there should be enough coverage nearby for it.

The fire study recommends five stations would consolidate on the east side of Kansas City, Kan., and two new stations would be built on the west side. The population growth is on the west side.

Mayor Holland also said Kansas City, Kan., had significantly more Fire Department employees than did similar sized cities in Olathe, Kan., and Independence, Mo., and KCK was spending more money per resident than those two cities.

Wing said the firefighters have put a plan on the table that would take care of all of the needs in the community, including more fire stations in Piper, and leaving coverage in the eastern part of the city the way it is. The firefighters’ proposal would add no additional fire companies, he added.

“Their objective was to cut the budget,” he said about the consultants’ study, “not for a service document. Our was for service.”

Wing added the firefighters’ proposal adds service in the Piper area and leaves it the same on the eastern part of Kansas City, Kan., with the same cost, not an additional cost. The consultants’ plan would cut costs, he added.

Trading shifts

Trading shifts is common, Mayor Holland said. However, a legislative audit found that about a third of the trades last year were not traded back, he said. The audit found $250,000 paid in overtime to firefighters who did not do that work, he said. Some other cities require employees to trade back when they exchange shifts, he added. He also said the payouts at the end of the year were unfair and unsustainable.

He also said retirement payouts were affected by this practice, and represented a significant burden the UG bears, with a million dollars paid to the Kansas Public Employees Retirement fund in penalties. In 2015, about 96 UG employees retired, with the UG paying $3.7 million to retire 26 firefighters; and the UG paying $3.4 million to retire the remaining 70 UG employees.

At the meeting, Commissioner Ann Murguia pointed out that firefighters work more hours per week than most workers. According to the mayor, they average around 53.5 hours a week as compared to the regular 40-hour week. They work weekends and holidays. Commissioner Murguia said trading shifts allows them to participate more in family activities.

Also she said that the types of fire calls Olathe and Independence have versus the Kansas City, Kan., population are different. Consultants said more than a dozen cities were compared to Kansas City, Kan., for this study.

Commissioner Murguia also said she would like to hear from Local 64 representatives and fire personnel at the meeting.

Fire Chief John P. Jones said at the meeting that he considers trading time to be budget-neutral, and there wasn’t really a correlation between trading time and end-of-the-year payouts. Trading time allows for flexibility, with the Fire Department’s 365-day, 24-hour schedule, he said.

Chief Jones said there was a direct correlation between overtime and carrying vacancies in the department.

Wing said today he considered shift-changing as a nonissue. The firefighters here have a longstanding agreement that he estimated at seven decades old on the topic. Wing believes it is a cost-neutral issue.

“Trading time allows for different things to happen for firefighters in their family lives,” Wing said. Firefighters are not complaining about the longer work week, and he said that laws and contracts across the country also have recognized that people have their own lives to live. Trading shifts gives flexibility to allow employees to do other things they need to do in their lives, he said.

Cutting Fire Department costs

Wing said that new sales tax money is expected to come into the Unified Government in 2017 from the Village West area. He said there are sales taxes targeted for public safety, fire and EMS that they don’t have right now.

“Why cut the Fire Department when you are actually going to get more dollars next year out of sales tax money?” Wing asked. Residents already voted for a sales tax several years ago that would specifically go to public safety, he added.

Wing said it may be the mayor’s political opinion that the community can’t sustain the level of spending, but the community has already voted at the polls that they want spending to go to public safety services. They also have responded with a high degree of satisfaction in the Fire Department in a recent community survey, Wing said.

“What operates today was good enough for Mayor Reardon, what operates today was put in place by Mayor Marinovich, but today it’s not good enough for Mayor Holland,” Wing remarked.

Mayor Holland, however, called for the UG Commission to implement the fire study “to right-size our department – without layoffs – and bring it in line with peer cities. We can do this through attrition,” he stated. “The UG also needs to require firefighters to work their shifts back, rather than pay for them. Money saved by this move could be invested in capital improvements recommended by FACETS (the name of the fire study).”

More topics on the issue of the fire study and future plans for the Fire Department were discussed at the April 28 special session of the UG Commission. To view a video of that meeting, visit

Piper results

Piper High School – golf at Atchison
– 1st place
o E. Pahls (1st)
o N. Delaquila (2nd)
o A. Appl (3rd)
Piper High School – swim at Turner
– 200 Medley Relay 6th Frye, Dailey, Telthorst, Wiles
– 200 free 8 th Taylor DeWitt
– 100 fly 6th Ashley Eikenbary, 8th Mallori Courtney
– 500 free 1st. Megan Dailey. 9 th Sascha Dean
– 200 free relay 6th DeWitt, Cabrera, Dean, Frye
– 400 free relay 5th Dailey, Telthorst, Eikenbary, Frye

– From Doug Key, Piper High School activities director

House expected to vote on bill reversing business tax cuts

by Andy Marso, KHI News Service

The House is expected to vote on a plan to return some 330,000 Kansas businesses back to the income tax rolls, possibly as soon as Friday afternoon.

A tax conference committee made up of House and Senate negotiators agreed to push the measure forward for a floor vote as the Legislature tries to close a budget gap, adjourn the session and head back to the campaign trail.

Rep. Mark Hutton, a Wichita Republican who joined the conference committee for the specific proposal, has pushed for more than a year to make the business income taxable again. It was exempted in 2012 as part of a tax package Gov. Sam Brownback spearheaded that also included large reductions in individual income tax rates.

Hutton said the latest proposal would be a “structural change” that would restore fairness to the tax code and break the state out of a cycle of low revenue collections and budget deficits.

But he and the other negotiators admitted that passage would not eliminate the tough decisions the Legislature and Brownback face in fixing the immediate budget crisis, because the business income would not become taxable again until Jan. 1, 2017.

“It isn’t going to unilaterally solve our situation, no,” said Rep. Marvin Kleeb, an Overland Park Republican who chairs the House Taxation Committee.

But Kleeb said it could serve as a “hybrid” solution that combines increased tax revenue with immediate spending cuts.

The Brownback administration has outlined three budget-balancing options for legislators that include taking almost $200 million from highway projects and then selling an ongoing tobacco settlement, postponing payments to the public employee retirement fund or making across-the-board spending cuts to state-funded areas, including education and Medicaid.

Brownback has threatened to veto any rollback of the business tax exemption. Sen. Les Donovan, chairman of the Senate Assessment and Taxation Committee, said he would meet Friday afternoon with the governor to discuss that and other issues.

The Kansas Chamber of Commerce, a preeminent lobbying force in the Statehouse, also has opposed any effort to scrap the business tax exemption. Mike O’Neal, the president of the Chamber and one of the orchestrators of the tax cut when he was House speaker, said Friday that position remained firm.

Donovan, a Republican from Wichita, said the Senate negotiators accepted what has become known as the “Hutton plan” for rolling back the tax exemption on the condition that the House vote on it first.

“Our folks are OK with your proposal,” Donovan said. “We know it puts the burden on your shoulders to get it passed.”

Rep. Tom Sawyer, a Democrat from Wichita, said he would support the bill as the top Democrat on the tax committee but couldn’t speak for the rest of his caucus.

An exchange he had with Donovan during the negotiations presaged concerns some House members have about voting for a tax increase only to see it die in the Senate.

“If the House does pass it, what are its prospects in the Senate?” Sawyer asked.

“We will vote on it,” Donovan replied.

Kleeb said the bill probably has less chance of passing in the Senate, but if the House votes it through decisively that might influence the other chamber.

Regardless, he said representatives on both sides of the issue might relish a chance to cast a vote on it before the August primary and November general elections.

Those who favor the bill can tell their constituents they tried to include the business tax as part of the budget-balancing measures, and those who favor leaving the exemption in place can burnish their pro-business bona fides.

“We need to have that vote on the House floor,” Kleeb said.

he nonprofit KHI News Service is an editorially independent initiative of the Kansas Health Institute and a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor reporting collaboration. All stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to when a story is reposted online.

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