“Russian roulette with public safety” is how Don Waller, union president of Local 29 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, characterized the circumstance he and fellow Spokane firefighters find themselves in since the city eliminated a station crew.
We feel the same way every time the union sacrifices jobs for better compensation in negotiations with the city. Don’t they realize that some colleagues will get laid off and safety will be compromised?
To recap the facts from a November editorial: The city has 37 fewer firefighters than a decade ago, but the Fire Department still takes about 21 percent of general funds. That’s a worse deal for taxpayers and a riskier proposition for everyone, including firefighters. The beginning salary is $50,299 plus benefits, and that tops out at $85,567 after 30 years, under the current contract. Overtime pushes pay higher.
That might be justifiable if Spokane were a high-wage city and firefighters were scarce, but both aren’t true. The average pay for Spokane workers was about $42,000 last year. Meanwhile, the last time the city advertised for firefighters, it got 732 applicants.
The problem goes beyond the union, because eight of 10 of the highest-paid city employees in 2010 were Fire Department chiefs or battalion commanders, all of whom made more than $160,000 with overtime included.
The union and some City Council members say firefighting cuts could’ve been mitigated if the city had taken the 1 percent property tax increase as it usually does, but the mayor and the majority of the council want sanity restored on public safety salaries. They lose leverage by taking more from taxpayers.
The property tax increase would have raised about $360,000, and advocates say that would buy important public safety now. But what Mayor David Condon wants is more bang for each buck over the long haul. That $360,000 doesn’t go as far when firefighters and police officers get consistent pay increases.
By sheer necessity, the city has become a tougher negotiator. Firefighters got a very small raise in the latest contract, and health insurance premium increases were capped at 4 percent. But it isn’t enough, and most city leaders seem to know it. Taking the firetrucks out of Fire Station No. 9 wasn’t a pleasant decision, but it was a natural consequence of increased salaries. If the city were to sever the connection between employee pay and services, it could never hope to close the gap between public salaries and what taxpayers can afford.
Since the station lost its trucks, fire officials and the city have discussed more efficient ways to deliver service. Medical calls are far more common than fire calls, and the department is adjusting accordingly. Unfortunately, the firefighters union is challenging this move.
City leaders must not cave to rhetoric about diminishing safety from those who are fanning the budgetary fire and slowing the necessary response.