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Labor deal has familiar look

Firefighters contract would cover four years

Eight months after the Spokane City Council rejected a firefighters labor contract negotiated by the last mayor, the new mayor has agreed to nearly the same terms.

City officials say the deal announced Thursday will increase the city’s costs next year by $1.3 million, and Mayor David Condon says cuts within the Fire Department will pay for them. City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said it’s unclear yet if firefighters will be laid off.

The most significant change from the deal the council rejected is the addition of a fourth year to the Spokane Firefighters Union contract. It also would shift more responsibility for administering the union’s medical plan to the union, though the city doesn’t estimate significant savings as a result. The council is scheduled to consider the new deal on Oct. 15.

Parties on both sides said the union could have forced the city into providing better compensation than what’s proposed by requesting that the contract be decided by an arbitrator.

As in the rejected deal, the new deal would pay 100 percent of firefighters’ medical premiums starting next year in exchange for the union agreeing to cap the city’s increased costs of medical plans in future years at 4 percent annually. In recent years the city has often paid medical cost increases of more than 10 percent.

“That’s a big thing for the city,” said Union President Mark Vietzke. “They have been after that for several years.”

Both deals would freeze pay in 2012 and 2013 and raise pay by 1.9 percent in 2014. Union members received a 3 percent pay raise in January, but the city considers that the union’s 2011 pay raise, which the union agreed to delay as part of an earlier concession. In 2015 members would get a raise equal to consumer price index, from zero to a maximum of 3 percent.

Vietzke said the union requested that a membership vote be delayed until after the City Council votes.

It appears that there will be enough support on the City Council to approve the deal, but some say they’ll vote for it grudgingly.

Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan, who opposed the contract earlier this year, said he’ll likely support it because it’s about the best deal the city can get under current state law, which ties firefighter and police compensation to “comparable” departments and bars police and firefighters from striking. He said he hopes the city pushes to change the law.

Fagan said he doesn’t buy the argument that firefighters deserve high wages because they risk their lives. He noted that most firefighting work is related to medical calls, not fires. There are risks in all jobs, he said.

“It’s like, ‘Cry me a river,’ ” Fagan said. “We all make choices in life.”

Spokane City Councilman Steve Salvatori said he’s OK with the boosted health benefits package because firefighters risk their lives. But, he said, he’s uncomfortable with any cost-of-living adjustments at a time of stagnating tax revenue.

“This contract is not a lot different than the other one,” said Salvatori, who said he’s undecided on the new contract. “If we have 2 percent increases in COLAs, we’re going to have 2 percent fewer firefighters.”

Councilman Jon Snyder, who supported the earlier contract, said the union has worked well with the city to cut costs in the past and that given the time administrators spend on employee contracts, the longer term is attractive.

“It’s just one more year when we can focus on other policy matters,” he said.

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

Under both proposals, the city would pay 100 percent of firefighters’ and their families’ medical premiums in 2013. That’s up from 82.5 percent. 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.

Under state labor law, if parties negotiating a public safety union contract 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, who would 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.

Both sides agree that the union likely would have gotten a better deal in arbitration.

The city’s research indicates that in 2011 Spokane firefighters received about 5 percent less compensation than the average compensation received by the nine “comparable” departments.

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