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Emanuel voices support for his fire chief — but not necessarily his budget concerns

Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Robert Hoff stands next Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Hoff Emanuel First Deputy Police Superintendent AlfonzWysinger among others

Chicago Fire Department Commissioner Robert Hoff stands next to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Hoff, Emanuel, and First Deputy Police Superintendent Alfonza Wysinger, among others, participate in a National Moment of Remembrance to pay tribute to the 9/11 victims and their families at the "Little Cubs" field in Humboldt park on Sunday, September 11, 2011. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 30, 2011 8:05AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday made it clear he plans take a hard line in contract talks with Chicago firefighters — even though his own fire commissioner is “deathly against” closing fire houses or reducing the minimum staffing requirement on fire apparatus.

Emanuel said he made Commissioner Robert Hoff one of only a handful of holdovers from the Daley administration because Hoff “does a great job.”

But, that doesn’t mean the two men agree on the cost-cutting changes the city will seek when the firefighters contract expires on June 30.

“I have sought his advice as we worked through the budget and reflected changes [he suggested] … For the first time, we’re gonna have one headquarters for public safety that will include police and fire. We’ll consolidate key areas like arson and bombing and anti-terrorism,” Emanuel said.

“I also like Commissioner Hoff because he’s honest about his views. I want him to be honest. What’s the old phrase — if the two of us agree 100 percent, there’s one too many of us in the room. It doesn’t mean I agree with everything he said. It doesn’t mean I disagree with everything he said. When I get to the negotiations, I’ll have the negotiations. I’m not gonna do it through you. He expressed his views. That’s fine. I want him to do that.”

Inspector General Joe Ferguson has estimated that Chicago taxpayers could save $57 million-a-year by reducing — from five employees to four — the minimum number of employees required to staff every piece of fire apparatus.

That’s the issue that touched off the bitter 1980 firefighters strike.

The Civic Federation has also urged the mayor to cut deeply into the Chicago Fire Department’s $521.5 million budget by re-evaluating everything from minimum staffing requirements and the number and location of fire stations to possible outsourcing and ways to reduce disability absences.

The review would be the first since the largely ignored 1999 report by the Tri-Data Corp.

Not surprisingly, Tom Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union Local 2, sided with Hoff. Ryan argued that standards established by the National Fire Protection Association state that four employees-on-a-truck are acceptable, only in “low-density” areas.

“For high-target hazards — which is virtually every ward in Chicago — the standards say there should be five and maybe even six” employees on every piece of fire apparatus, Ryan said.

Testifying earlier this week at City Council budget hearings, Hoff lashed out at Ferguson for daring to suggest staffing cuts.

“I, as fire commissioner, will be adamant when I say this: Any decrease in manning — any decrease in fire companies, ambulances or closing of firehouses — I am literally deathly against,” Hoff said.

“If you have a five-person fire company, you are 100 percent efficient when you pull up on the scene. Everyone has a task to perform. Going to four person companies is 65 percent efficient.”

On Friday, Emanuel questioned Hoff’s choice of words.

“Did he use the word deathly? He did? That’s an energetic phrase,” the mayor said.

During a meeting earlier this month with the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board, Emanuel hinted strongly that the upcoming contract talks would be contentious.

Emanuel said he managed to cut just $40 million out of the Fire Department’s budget because the mayor has direct oversight over just seven percent of that spending.

Implied but not stated was the fact that, when the contract expires, he’ll get his hands on the remaining 93 percent.

Also on Friday, Emanuel let it be known that he was not happy about the deal that allowed the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority to spend $7 million to help build a restaurant near U.S. Cellular Field without allowing Illinois Taxpayers to share in the restaurants profits.

Instead, the gravy goes to the White Sox and their investors, the Chicago Tribune reported this week.

“As soon as I saw the story, I wanted to get to the bottom of it and I’m awaiting that information” from the mayor’s staff, Emanuel said.

“Then, what are the reforms that are necessary — both to the sports authority or the contract so we know what we’re doing.”

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