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Fire chief on hot seat for $5M shortfall

(Published April 24, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

A potential deficit of more than $5 million in the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department budget has pitted the interim fire chief and the mayor against the D.C. City Council and the financial control board. The spending gap has also prompted the fire chief to freeze overtime and request an audit of his department’s spending and budget to try to get the shortfall under control.

Since Interim Chief Thomas N. Tippett took over the department in December, he has initiated programs that put a fifth man on each fire truck and staffed 24 new aide positions for his battalion chiefs. Tippett also reopened a firehouse on Capitol Hill and has proposed changing the entire structure of the EMS division. Even though council members and staffers at the Office of the Chief Financial Officer have said an interim chief doesn’t have the authority to reprogram money for projects like these, Tippett has been operating with the blessing of the mayor.

Tippett’s initiatives, however, have caused overtime expenditures to skyrocket, leading to a projected deficit of $5.3 million by the end of the current fiscal year, according to a report Tippett submitted March 20 to the CFO.

"He (Tippett) has to stop doing it," said Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2. "The mayor has to direct Tippett to not do this and he has not been willing to do that. This is just unacceptable."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams said that when he appointed Tippett as interim chief he directed him to make what changes he felt necessary to improve the operations of the fire department.

"I told him that I didn’t want him in there as a caretaker, that time was a-wasting and I wanted him to take actions," Williams said. The mayor said he also made Tippett aware that he was only one of several candidates to fill the job on a permanent basis.

"He (Williams) said he wants the best department in the country," Tippett said. "That’s my goal, and I’m going to continue (making changes) until he tells me to stop."

The interim chief has frozen most overtime for the department and asked the council to allow the department to reallocate funds in its budget to close the spending gap. Tippett also has started an internal audit of his department’s finances. The audit is being conducted by the budget office, at the request of the fire chief. Tippett also asked the mayor to submit a request to reprogram $1.26 million to fund the battalion aides. That request was made Jan. 3 but has not been approved by the city council.

Meanwhile, the potential shortfall has also drawn the attention of the presidentially appointed control board, which oversees the city’s finances. Mayor Williams reportedly is continuing to resist the control board and council’s behind-the-scenes insistence during at least two recent meetings that he rein in the interim fire chief’s overtime spending.

"It’s like they’re printing money over there," a control board source said. "He (Tippett) is telling people to put it in as overtime, but what he’s really done is reassign them to other things."

Since the report to the CFO was submitted, Tippet has begun taking measures to ensure the battalion aides and fifth man initiatives will stay funded.

"We’ve frozen overtime until we get a handle on what the budget looks like," Tippett said. "No overtime for communications, facilities maintenance, training, EMS. None of these divisions can draw from fire-fighting for overtime."

Tippett said "only what’s absolutely necessary to keep fire companies and ambulances on the street" will be spent on overtime while the freeze is in effect. He said he expects the audit to be completed "in a couple weeks."

Evans, the chairman of the council’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, said reinstating the fifth man on the truck companies and the battalion chief aides are both "against council policy."

"Both of those were policy decisions that the Rivlin Commission recommended be eliminated," Evans said. The city council has not funded those positions since they were axed during the budget crisis in the early 1990s.

Those decisions, however, were directly contradicted by two reports that studied the deaths of three firefighters who perished while fighting blazes on two separate occasions. The restoration of the fifth man on the truck companies and the battalion aides were two of the numerous recommendations made by a committee that investigated the death of Sgt. John Carter in October 1997. However, then-Chief Donald Edwards never implemented those recommendations and was harshly criticized for it. Eighteen months later, Firefighters Louis J. Matthews and Anthony S. Phillips Sr. died as a result of injuries sustained fighting a townhouse fire in Northeast Washington. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a report on those deaths and again recommended the restoration of the fifth man and the aides.

When Tippet assumed control of the department after Edwards retired last December, he vowed to put in place the changes the NIOSH report called for.

The monthly report submitted to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) by Tippett said the department would "have to take drastic measures" in order to avoid red ink in fiscal 2000, which ends Sept. 30.

To illustrate his point, Tippett proposed closing six engine companies and shutting down the Fire Prevention Division, which includes the fire marshal’s office and the arson investigation unit, in order to save $4.1 million. The proposal drew derision from members of the city council at a budget hearing and even members of the department characterized the suggestions as nothing more than a political gambit.

Ironically, Tippett’s proposal to close six fire companies came less than a week after the high-profile re-opening of Engine Company 3 on New Jersey Avenue NW on Capitol Hill. Money for opening that firehouse was not included in this year’s budget, and the city even briefly considered selling off the building as surplus property last summer as part of a scheme to bail out Greater Southeast Community Hospital.

At the same time Tippett is trying to close his agency’s spending gap, he is requesting a $5.9 million increase in his budget for fiscal 2001. In his testimony before the council March 30, Tippet said half of that requested increase is due to the restoration of the battalion aides and the fifth man. He has also proposed training firemen to be paramedics as part of his initiative to have paramedics on every fire engine. Tippett acknowledged the so-called "dual cross-training" program also will drive up overtime expenditures as firefighters cover shifts for their colleagues in the training program.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator