It may be hard for the public to fathom how Spokane’s union firefighters can receive salary increases totaling at least 17.5 percent over five years at the same time the city is considering cutting 58 firefighters in 2005.
Councilman Brad Stark confronted the paradox during Monday’s City Council meeting when he challenged the fire union president to grant wage concessions to help the city out of its budget crisis.
Union President Greg Borg stood his ground. “Are you making us the scapegoat in this?” he asked Stark during the televised council meeting.
Such is the tension at City Hall, where nearly 140 jobs are at stake as the city pares services in an effort to balance rising labor costs with sluggish tax growth.
Stark ultimately joined six other council members as they voted unanimously for the fire settlement, which grants retroactive increases for 2003 and 2004 and calls for modest cost-of-living salary increases in each of the next three years.
As many as 58 firefighter positions would be eliminated in 2005 as part of an $18 million reduction in services in the city’s $118 million general fund for 2005. The City Council could vote on the budget as early as Monday. Layoffs and early retirements are expected across police, fire, library, park, street and other services.
“I think I was doing due diligence in my role as a councilman in asking questions many citizens have asked me and other council members,” Stark said Tuesday. “I have great respect for the job firefighters do.”
Borg said he felt like he got a “public whipping” from Stark.
“I felt like Brad Stark was grandstanding,” he said. “It’s not something we are going to forget.”
The focus on fire salaries is mostly a matter of timing.
The fire pact is the latest in a series of union salary contracts approved by the City Council in 2004.
When Mayor Jim West took office, he told his staff to clear up a backlog of wage agreements that stalled during the term of his predecessor, John Powers. West has said he does not begrudge city employees fair wages, and he has been working to improve morale at City Hall.
Nearly all of the city’s major unions have won wage concessions from City Hall this year. Police officers won a 9 percent salary increase from 2002 through 2004 and a cost-of-living increase in 2005. Workers in Local 270 of the Washington State Council of City and County Employees, as well as managers and professionals at City Hall, have won substantial settlements as well.
The contract for Local 270, which represents the bulk of non-uniformed city employees, calls for 5 percent increases this year and in each of the next two years, but employees under that contract have agreed to pay more of their health insurance costs, particularly for dependents’ health coverage.
Drawing on general fund
Retroactive payments on contracts will reduce the general fund.
Wage agreements are expected to cost the fund an additional $5 million in 2005.
On top of that, health care costs are expected to go up 19 percent next year at a cost of $1.4 million to the city.
Joe Cavanaugh, president of Local 270, said the unions at City Hall largely were unaware of the gravity of the city’s budget crisis during most of their negotiations. Workers should not be blamed for higher costs at City Hall, he said.
Negotiations, he said, became the object of “in-house parlor games” among city administrators, who argued among themselves over who was in charge of the talks. “This is the Titanic,” Cavanaugh said of the city’s budget crisis. “They are moving deck chairs.”
Also, the Powers administration left office at the end of last year after alienating union workers with a get-tough attitude, he said.
Mike Shea, who was hired by West this year as director of human resources, acknowledged the city administration had problems in coordinating its bargaining strategy. He and City Council members are trying to resolve those problems before the next round of talks.
Councilman Bob Apple said he is unhappy with the administration’s performance on contract talks.
“Basically, it was mismanagement from top management,” he said. In short, the unions beat City Hall in negotiations, Apple said.
Apple said he wants the city to hire a consulting firm to conduct its negotiations in the future.
Spokane is not alone in facing a budget crisis. Tacoma is considering closing one fire station as part of a proposed $15 million-a-year cut from its budget. Other cities, including New York, Cleveland and Minneapolis, have undergone cuts in public safety services.
In Spokane, sales tax revenues are expected to increase a modest 2.5 percent in 2005. The City Council already has approved an increase in property taxes of about $12 a year on a $100,000 home and a $5 increase in overtime parking fines from $10 to $15 to help shore up the budget.
Other budget problems include failure of home monitoring to reduce jail costs by more than $1 million and the ongoing drain on revenue caused by the River Park Square legal fight.
State law gives uniformed employees a strong bargaining position with the city. Police and firefighters are not allowed to strike, but they can force binding arbitration, in which an independent third party decides on the settlement.
Spokane unions have won substantial gains in past binding arbitrations, city officials said, so the administration has been reluctant to take their cases to arbitrators.
As a result, police and fire salaries closely mirror those of similar-sized cities in Western Washington, where the cost of housing is higher. Police and firefighters can earn nearly $60,000 a year without any promotions or overtime pay.
By contrast, non-uniformed workers at City Hall have wages that lag behind their counterparts on the West Side, in large part because they do not share the binding arbitration rules afforded to police and firefighters.
Local 270’s Cavanaugh pointed out that some of his members make $10 an hour. He said the city is in danger of losing some of its skilled workers because wages in Spokane are relatively low, particularly in the utility industry, which hires workers with some of the same skills as those in Spokane utility departments.
Borg and Cavanaugh both said city managers are paid well from the union’s point of view.
Fire Chief Bobby Williams is slated to receive $138,000 next year, up from $110,000 at the start of 2004. The mayor and police chief have enjoyed similar increases, and will be paid $136,000 next year. Fire battalion chiefs earn from $85,000 to $103,000 a year. The library director earns $109,700.
Some city residents have a hard time accepting those pay levels.
“I think they are all high,” said Homer Beatty, 84, a retired merchandise manager. “All of this stuff just sounds extravagant to me,” he said.
Beatty called the salary increases for police and fire officers “unconscionable.”
Jerry Numbers, chairman of the East Central Neighborhood Council, said the pay levels hurts community support for police and firefighters. “I think the citizens of Spokane are saying, ‘Wait a minute,’ ” Numbers said.
In Washington state, the average annual wage paid to all workers was $39,021 in 2003, according to the federal government. Average public sector salaries lagged by about $200.
Salary increases in the private sector often depend on the strength of the businesses granting the increases, said Jeff Zahir, regional labor economist for the state Department of Employment Security in Spokane.
Workers will seek public employment because it has shown predictability in salary increases over the course of a career, while private sector workers face greater uncertainty in wages, Zahir said.
Across the country, wages in the private sector have grown faster than public wages in recent years, but both have lagged slightly behind the government’s consumer price index, which nationally was up 3.2 percent a year in October.
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