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City spending panel approves raises for fire chief

Baltimore's spending panel approved Wednesday a six-year contract extension for Fire Chief James S. Clack that will give him a raise of nearly 18 percent by 2018.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake cited a historic reduction in fire fatalities as evidence of Clack's leadership, and her two appointees to the Board of Estimates agreed, approving the contract on a 3-2 vote.

"I believe extending his contract will allow him to continue to implement meaningful changes to the department and improve public safety in the city," Rawlings-Blake said.

Under the contract, Clack's salary will rise from the current $161,262 to $190,000 in 2018. By comparison, the mayor's salary is about $155,000 after she donated a 2.5 percent increase to the city's YouthWorks program.

The heads of the city's fire unions objected to Clack's raise, which comes as the administration is closing down fire companies. Two companies closed Monday, and a third is scheduled to close in October.

"I do not believe you can cut a core service such as public safety and then say things will improve," said Michael Campbell, head of the fire officers union. "The homicide rate is also down, but you don't hear the Police Department recommending shutting down squad cars."

Comptroller Joan M. Pratt and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young voted against the deal.

Pratt said she didn't want to see Clack's contract extend past 2016, the end of the mayor's current term under a new election cycle approved by the General Assembly this year. She also questioned the size of the raise, saying the chief' should get the same percentage increase as members of the fire unions.

The unions are not getting raises this year after rejecting the offer made by the Rawlings-Blake administration in January. It would have required firefighters to work 56 hours a week — up from 42 — in exchange for a salary increase of 20 percent.

In rejecting the offer, union officials said firefighters were being asked to work 33 percent more hours for a raise of much less. The unions also said the offer was unfair because administrators and paramedics were to have gotten the extra money without working more hours.

"It would have been an increase in hours and an increase in pay," Rawlings-Blake said later. "They had a right to their opinion about the hours they want to work."

Clack, 52, worked for the city without a contract from 2008 — when he took over the department after the retirement of Chief William J. Goodwin Jr. — until 2010.

Clack came to Baltimore from Minneapolis, where he won praise for his response to the Interstate 35-W bridge collapse and for turning around a department that had been embroiled in sexual discrimination lawsuits.

Barbara Zektick, the city's assistant deputy chief for public safety and operations, told the board the pay increases for Clack are reasonable. "We don't think this is uncommon for a high-level city executive," she said.

Rawlings-Blake noted that Clack had been named one of seven finalists to head the U.S. Fire Administration, the federal agency that runs the National Fire Academy. "Clearly, his leadership and professionalism has caught the eye of people around the country," the mayor said.

Baltimore suffered 17 fire fatalities in 2011, the fewest since 1938. Three people have died in fires this year.

Rick Hoffman, president of the firefighters union, said if Clack gets a raise, the rank-and-file should, too. "I think the credit goes to a lot of guys in those blue shirts right there," Hoffman said, pointing to firefighters in the audience.

Clack did not attend the hearing, but he released a statement saying he was honored by the contract.

"Despite a very challenging economy, we have made great progress in reducing fire deaths and injuries in the City of Baltimore," Clack said. "We have more work to do, but we are making significant progress toward our vision of zero fire deaths."

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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