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Fire chief quits over budget fight

Tippett says firefighters’ safety being compromised

(Published May 8, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

The abrupt resignation May 5 of Interim Fire Chief Thomas N. Tippett may be just the start of the city losing several veteran firefighters over a budget dispute that touches on departmental safety issues, Deputy Mayor Erik P. Christian has acknowledged.

"Some of them have indicated that they are considering resigning based on their position in the fire department," said Christian, who oversees the city’s public safety agencies.

The shakeup was caused by a dispute that pitted the fire chief and the mayor against the federally appointed financial control board and some members of the council concerning Tippett’s initiatives to restore the fifth man on the truck companies and provide aides to the battalion chiefs.

Tippett ran intro trouble with the control board and members of the city council when it came to light that his initiatives were causing a spending deficit of more than $5 million for the current fiscal year. The mayor had submitted two requests to reprogram money from other areas of the city budget to cover the shortfall but those were rejected by the control board.

"I have been advised by Deputy Mayor Norman Dong that due to budget pressures I am to immediately discontinue the (staffing) policies," Tippett wrote in his resignation letter to Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "I have made a solemn promise to the firefighters of this city and to their families that I would do everything in my power to improve safety and not unnecessarily place my employees in harm’s way. Therefore, I cannot in good faith carry out the directive of the deputy mayor."

The Common Denominator reported April 24 that Tippett’s management of the department came under scrutiny from the control board and the council after he submitted monthly budget reports that showed the department was overspending its budget at a rate that would leave it $5.3 million short by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The 1990 Rivlin Report on the financial state of the District recommended that the fifth firefighter on the truck companies be cut from the department as a cost-cutting measure. Since 1993, the city council has not funded those positions.

The department in two incidents in 1997 and 1999 lost three firefighters in the line of duty. Two reports detailing the events surrounding those deaths and a third study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health all recommended restoring the battalion aides and the fifth firefighter on the truck companies.

Reportedly, though, the chairman of the federally appointed D.C. financial control board, Alice M. Rivlin, objected to restoring the fifth firefighter and battalion chief aides and said she would not support reprogramming money to finance them this year or funding for those positions in next year’s budget.

"It is apparent that the control board under the leadership of Alice Rivlin has decided on the appropriate staffing levels," a terse written statement from the fire department read.

Rivlin declined to comment on Tippett’s resignation.

Councilman Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, said he was sorry to see Tippett leave under these circumstances and said he supported the chief’s initiatives.

"I would have done that if I could have found the money in (next year’s) budget," Evans said. Evans had been sharply critical of Tippet for staffing those positions, when there was no money appropriated for them in this year’s budget, by billing it all to the overtime budget.

Christian acknowledged the city still has to find money to cover the costs for staffing those positions for the past five months. In the meantime the department will cease staffing those positions, which include 68 firefighters and 24 battalion aides.

He also said that Tippett, a 34-year veteran of the department who was also a past president of the firefighters’ union, may not be the only top fire department official to resign as a result of the budget dispute.

Williams named Battalion Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe to serve as interim chief until a permanent chief is named. A search committee submitted the names of four finalists for the job April 28. The list included Tippett as well as candidates from Detroit, Georgia and New York. A mayoral spokeswoman said an announcement is expected any day.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator