April 18, 2009 in City, News

Battalion chiefs could see pay boost

By The Spokesman-Review
 

As city leaders contemplate budget cuts and potential layoffs because of the ailing economy, some of Spokane’s highest-paid employees are poised to receive increases in their total compensation of about 5 percent annually over the next four years.

The proposed contract with the Spokane Association of Fire Officers, which represents a dozen employees, will be considered Monday by the City Council.

The unit is made up mostly of battalion chiefs, the on-scene commanders at fires and other emergencies. In 2008, battalion chiefs who had served in their positions for four years or more earned between $108,000 and $123,000 a year, depending on their experience level.

Officials acknowledge that the proposed increases come at a time when many workers, particularly in the private sector, are either losing jobs or seeing their pay slashed. But they defend the tentative agreement as good for taxpayers.

Spokane City Administrator Ted Danek said even with a recession, the contract is consistent with what fire officials make in departments of similar size. An attempt to pay less likely would end up with an arbitrator who would set pay based on what other cities pay, he said.

“It’s our feeling that we’d end up paying more than what we’ve settled for and add on to that the cost of the binding arbitration,” Danek said. “The taxpayers (would) lose in the end.”

Battalion Chief Dan Brown, president of the officers union, said the pay reflects the huge responsibility and the life-and-death decisions they have to make, such as determining when to send firefighters into a burning building and when to call them out.

“In this line of work, we only have a very few minutes to put together a plan and make a decision,” Brown said. “Three o’clock in the morning, if that bell rings, we still have to have that same ability and same sharpness.”

Council members Mike Allen and Nancy McLaughlin, who voted against the contract for the city’s largest employee union last year, said Friday that they still were studying the agreement and hadn’t decided how to vote. They argued that the city couldn’t afford the 5 percent annual pay increases included in that agreement.

Councilman Bob Apple said voting down a contract agreed to by Mayor Mary Verner’s staff could result in a lawsuit.

“At the end of the day, we don’t have much of a choice,” he said.

The city estimates the cost of the contract will increase pay and benefits between 4.7 and 6.3 percent a year. Brown noted that in a previous contract the unit agreed to pay 30 percent or 15 percent of medical premiums, depending on the plan. It’s an amount that remains the highest among city unions.

If approved, the fire officers would become the first city union to abide by the city’s 2006 ethics code. The union also agreed to give up two of its 12 positions – one overseeing EMS and another overseeing training. Those jobs will become unrepresented – but higher paid – deputy chiefs. Last year, the deputy chief salary scale ranged between $111,000 and $137,000.

Under the proposed reorganization, the department would have a chief, an assistant chief and three deputy chiefs.

Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer said the proposed flow chart is based on the management design of the Spokane Police Department.

“SAFO made several concessions that made this contract possible,” Schaeffer said. “This model gives us a much more effective team.”

He added that while the pay scale is higher, deputy chiefs wouldn’t get overtime and likely would work extra hours.

Salaries in the proposed contract would increase by about 4.5 percent this year. After that, pay would rise based on other firefighters’ pay. The contract would ensure that battalion chiefs earn 19 percent more than fire captains, not including overtime. Division chiefs, such as the fire marshal, would earn 21 percent more than captains.

The main firefighters contract, approved last year, calls for pay increases equal to inflation plus 1 percent.

The officers’ contract will rearrange some duties so that there will be two battalion chiefs on duty at all times. Currently, vacations and sick leave often mean only one is on duty. That makes it difficult to cover a 59-square-mile area with 200,000 people, Brown said.

City officials have said they hope to gain concessions from city unions in the coming months to prevent the kind of massive layoffs and service reductions that the city experienced at the end of 2004.

Since the fire officers’ new contract is tied to their subordinates’ contract, whether their compensation is reduced will depend, in part, on concessions other firefighters accept.

Brown said the union will work with management to prevent layoffs.

“The loss of any firefighting positions would be detrimental to the citizens we serve,” Brown said.

Jonathan Brunt can be reached at jonathanb@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5442.


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