Spokane city administrators and firefighters have reached an impasse in contract negotiations following the rejection of a proposed contract agreed to by former Mayor Mary Verner.
The Spokane Firefighters Union requested that the contract be mediated by the state Public Employment Relations Commission, a move that was not challenged by the city, said Assistant City Attorney Erin Jacobson.
Both sides will meet with a mediator Monday. If the sides don’t budge, the mediator can certify that the contract in full or in part must be decided by an arbitrator, who would set contract terms based on firefighters contracts in place in nine “comparable” fire departments, including those in Tacoma, Spokane Valley, Everett, Bellevue, Kent and Vancouver, Wash.
A few days before her term as mayor ended, Verner agreed to a contract, but the City Council voted 4-3 in February to reject the deal.
Mark Vietzke, president of the Spokane Firefighters Union, said firefighters believe that the council rejected a fair deal that helped save the city money in a slow economy. Despite frustration that the deal was rejected, he said he would still support the same contract.
“If they came to us and said, ‘We changed our minds, we’ll give you that same deal,’ we would take it,” Vietzke said.
He and city leaders said they couldn’t comment on the specific sticking points, but Vietzke indicated it appears Mayor David Condon’s negotiators are not interested in the same deal.
City officials have been reluctant to push a police or fire contract toward arbitration because state law allows arbitrators to set contract terms based on contracts in comparable agencies. The city’s own analysis of the wages and benefits in comparably sized departments indicates that in 2011, Spokane firefighters received about 5 percent less compensation than the average compensation among the other nine departments.
Both sides say arbitration is not a certainty.
“There is still a chance that the contract will be settled through mediation,” Jacobson said.
In 2010, firefighters agreed to delay a 3 percent raise that had been promised for 2011 until 2012. That raise went into effect for the first pay period of 2012 even though the firefighter contract expired at the end of last year.
The proposed three-year contract that was rejected by the council would have raised the estimated total cost of wages and benefits an average of 2.4 percent a year. It included no further cost of living raise for 2012, no raise for 2013 and a 1.9 percent pay increase for 2014.
Under the rejected deal, the city would have paid 100 percent of firefighters’ and their families’ medical premiums in 2013. The city currently pays 82.5 percent of medical premiums. 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.