September 1, 2009 in City

City, firefighters reach deal to avoid cuts

By The Spokesman-Review

Spokane firefighters likely will be spared layoffs thanks to a deal reached last week between union leaders and city administrators.

The sides agreed to create a new early retirement program expected to save the city at least $700,000 next year and about $350,000 each year after, at least through 2011.

That program, as well as $300,000 in savings as a result of changes to firefighters’ medical plan, will meet the “bill” Mayor Mary Verner gave firefighters to avoid service cuts. Without an agreement, the department was poised to lose more than a dozen firefighters – a number that could have forced a station closure.

Verner has told union leaders half the city’s $7 million deficit for 2010 will come through concessions or layoffs. Each union was given a target number. Friday was the deadline for unions to come up with plans to avoid job losses.

The city’s largest union, Local 270, and the Spokane Police Guild notified the city last week that they would not meet the deadline. Even so, Verner said she remains hopeful of deals with those groups.

“I believe they are working with us in good faith, so I’m not really worried about it,” Verner said.

Under the deal by the city, Spokane Firefighters Union and the Spokane Association of Fire Officers, 20 firefighters will be allowed this month to apply to retire by the end of the year. In October, an additional 10 can announce intentions to retire April 1. After that, an additional 10 could apply annually, at least through 2011.

“There’s always a concern if we lose experience,” said Dan Brown, president of the officers union. But, he said, “We’ve got really good people throughout the system.”

Those retiring will receive monthly payments to cover medical expenses until they’re eligible for Medicare. Retiring employees hired before Oct. 1, 1977, will receive payments of $300 a month until eligible for Medicare, for up to five years. Those hired later will receive $500 a month until eligible, for up to eight years.

Even with the payments, the city expects to save $35,000 for each retirement. That’s because a starting firefighter makes about $35,000, while top-scale firefighters earn more than $81,000.

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