November 18, 2010 in City

Firefighters make concessions to save jobs

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane firefighters avoid layoffs under a tentative agreement accepted this week by Mayor Mary Verner.

If the deal is approved by union members and City Council, Local 29 of the International Association of Fire Fighters would become the first of the city’s bargaining groups to strike a deal this year to save jobs.

“The tentative agreement makes changes of a permanent nature,” said City Administrator Ted Danek. “There is nothing in here that would harm future budgets.”

The mayor has asked all unions to give up their 2011 cost-of-living raises and to agree to pick up any increased costs of employee medical benefits above 4 percent a year. She has said those departments with unions that make concessions would face 3 percent cuts instead of 9 percent, thus preventing layoffs.

It’s unclear how close the agreement comes to Verner’s request. Danek declined to give specifics, saying he wants to give union members and City Council members a chance to examine the deal.

But he said the 13 firefighters who got layoff notices would remain employed, and of the 15 vacant firefighting jobs, only seven would be eliminated.

Approval of the deal would end talk of closing a fire station. Fire Chief Bobby Williams has said closing the station at 1722 S. Bernard St., was one way to deal with the layoffs.

Under Local 29’s contract, the union is entitled to a 2 percent raise on Jan. 1 and an additional 1 percent boost on July 1.

President of the firefighter union, Mark Vietzke, did not return calls seeking comment. Dan Brown, president of the Spokane Fire Officers Association, which represents the city’s battalion chiefs, said the tentative deal also would affect his members because they also are part of Local 29. He said the agreement is being presented to union members this week.

City Council members expressed cautious optimism when given Danek’s description of the tentative deal.

“If it’s like you describe it, I’d say, ‘yee haw,’” said Councilman Jon Snyder.

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin has been among the most vocal on the council in pushing for union concessions.

“On first blush, that’s terrific news, and we’re anxious to hear the full details of it,” she said.

Last year, Verner gave unions wide latitude in finding ways to prevent layoffs, but administrators this year have held firmer ground, saying they had little – if anything – to give in return for accepting her request.

The fire union’s concession last year involved pushing forward on a cheaper medical plan that it already had agreed to pursue in an earlier contract, and the creation of incentives to entice higher-paid firefighters to retire. Officials say the program has lowered the city’s costs, though in some cases it has caused unexpected boosts in overtime.

Facing a $13 million deficit, the mayor has sent notices to 70 city workers that they will be out of work as of Christmas – the last day of the final pay period in 2010. The city also plans to eliminate around 50 jobs that are currently vacant.

City leaders have warned that time is running out for unions to save jobs.

There are signs that other agreements are possible. Spokane Police Guild President Ernie Wuthrich was at City Hall late Thursday afternoon dropping off the guild’s concession proposal. He declined to discuss details before administrators reviewed it.


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