Firefighters, Schmoke near budget remedy Dropping of lawsuit could free city's $3 million reserve fund


Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and unions representing Baltimore's firefighters moved closer to an agreement yesterday that would allow the city to cancel emergency plans to lay off 252 firefighters and to eliminate 13 fire companies.

The mayor, who met with union leaders yesterday morning at City Hall, characterized the session as "very positive," spokesman Clinton R. Coleman Jr. said.

If an agreement can be worked out, the mayor will restore $3 million to the Fire Department, which would all but balance a $3.5 million Fire Department budget gap created when Gov. William Donald Schaefer cut more than $27 million in state aid to the city.

The $3 million would come from a reserve the city has set aside to cover the possibility of losing its appeal of a lawsuit filed by firefighters to force restoration of a pay increase awarded through binding contract arbitration, but canceled by the mayor last spring.

Union leaders, concerned that their determination to win the pay raise could cost 1 in 7 union members their jobs, would drop the lawsuit as part of the agreement -- but Jeffrey A. DeLisle, president of Fire Fighters Local 734, said his membership was willing to forgo the raise this year but not the principle of binding arbitration, which the lawsuit upheld.

"He's made it clear that if we withdraw the lawsuit he could free up that money," said John L. Seiss, president of the Baltimore City Fire Officers Association. "If we could make the department whole, we could spare people the agony of the downsizing."

But sparing the Fire Department could pose political risks for a mayor planning to eliminate seven libraries, shutter schools for a week and take other drastic steps to balance the budget.

He and union leaders agreed to hold more talks early next week after the city's labor commissioner, Jesse E. Hoskins, returns from an out-of-town trip.

A sticking point has been union insistence on a two-year no-layoffs policy. Mr. Schmoke has said this could tie the city's hands in the event of further state cuts.

"The mayor has guaranteed that if the money was restored he would hold harmless everyone from demotion and everyone from layoff," Mr. Seiss said. "But he didn't say how long, and that is one of the sticking points."

Union leaders are working under pressure of a deadline that will fall a week from tomorrow, when pink slips are scheduled to go out for 252 firefighters. The actual layoffs are scheduled to take effect Dec. 6.

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