February 4, 2012 in City

Council to tackle firefighter contract

Controversial deal negotiated by Verner up for vote on Monday
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Spokane city leaders are readying for a showdown with the Spokane Firefighters Union over a three-year contract negotiated between the firefighters and former Mayor Mary Verner in the final days of her administration.

But challenging the deal could prove risky for the City Council and force the city to give the union a more generous contract than the one now before them.

The council on Monday is scheduled to vote on the proposal. A 4-3 decision one way or the other is likely with Councilman Steve Salvatori the possible swing vote.

After nine months of negotiations, the union agreed to settle a new three-year contract with Verner on Dec. 29 – three days before her term ended and the firefighters’ contract expired.

“Myself and my members realize the economic times right now, and we think it is a good, fair deal for both my membership and for the city,” said fire union President Mark Vietzke, who is a lieutenant in the department.

Under the deal, firefighters would get no cost-of-living raises this year or next. In 2014, they would get a 1.9 percent raise. Under a concession agreement the union made to preserve jobs, firefighters also didn’t get a cost-of-living raise in 2011.

In exchange, administrators made changes to the health plan that will put more money in the paychecks of firefighters in 2013, but has the potential to hold down the skyrocketing cost of health benefits beyond that, administrators say.

The contract is estimated to raise the total cost of wages and benefits an average of 2.4 percent a year.

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she’s concerned that the cost of proposed health plan changes could outpace increases in tax revenue.

“I would like to give the new administration a chance to look at a more holistic view of coming years,” McLaughlin said.

If the deal is approved, the city would pay 100 percent of firefighters’ and their families’ medical premiums in 2013. The city currently pays 82.5 percent of the medical premiums of firefighters who have medical plans that cover their spouses and children. In 2014, firefighters agreed to cover any rise in the cost of medical coverage above 4 percent. In recent years, administrators say the cost to provide health benefits has risen by an average of 12 percent per year.

Because the agreement came so close to the end of the year, the City Council couldn’t approve it until newly elected members were sworn in. The new council has a more conservative majority.

Mayor David Condon has backed the deal, though city attorneys have said Condon doesn’t have a choice.

“The executive branch did their negotiations and now it’s up to the City Council to decide whether they approve or reject that contract,” Condon said in an interview last week. “That is what the executive branch has provided to them so I stand by what the executive branch has given to the council.”

Under state labor law, if parties come to an impasse and a mediator agrees that there’s little wiggle room between parties, terms of the contract are set by an arbitrator. He or she will determine Spokane’s contract based largely on the wages and benefits paid by nine “comparable” fire departments, including the departments in Tacoma, Spokane Valley, Everett, Bellevue, Kent and Vancouver.

Assistant City Attorney Erin Jacobson said the city’s analysis of the wages and benefits in “comparable” departments indicates that in 2011, Spokane firefighters received about 5 percent less compensation than the average compensation among the other nine departments.

Some of the unions in those departments have agreed to freeze wage levels for 2012, but Jacobson said she is unaware of cuts in compensation.

That means, if the city is forced into “binding arbitration” based on the wages in other departments, the city risks having to pay firefighters more than the deal on the table.

McLaughlin said she’s hopeful the union would be willing “to sit down with the new mayor” if the council turns down the contract.

“I know that we would be taking a risk, but that it would shine more of a spotlight on how unlevel the playing field is for cities under the current binding-arbitration laws,” she said.

Some other council members, however, say it would be irresponsible to make an issue out of binding arbitration when the union has offered what they say is a fair deal that holds increases much lower than recent contracts.

Councilman Jon Snyder said the increases appear to come in around the rate of inflation or less.

“That’s solid in my mind,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine any scenario where the city would have to pay less by going to arbitration than they would with this contract.”

Salvatori, who may hold the swing vote, said if the council rejects the deal, it “means we need to talk some more, not stop talking.”

“I’d like to make sure that we can fulfill any promises we make,” Salvatori said. “On the other side of that, I think this contract is the product of extensive and thoughtful negotiations. I don’t feel that this is an irresponsible contract.”

This story was changed on Feb. 4, 2012 to more accurately reflect firefighters’ health plans.

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