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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Deal saves Spokane firefighting jobs

Union agrees to freeze pay, cover some insurance costs, keep six positions dark

Spokane won’t lose a fire station and firefighters won’t face pink slips for 2011.

The Spokane firefighters union voted last week to accept Mayor Mary Verner’s request to forgo raises next year and to pick up any increased costs of employee medical benefits above 4 percent in 2011.

That makes Local 29 of the International Association of Fire Fighters the only city union to agree to concessions so far this year, and administrators say time is running out to prevent the layoffs of 57 other city workers who will lose their jobs on Christmas without concessions. By reaching the agreement, the firefighters prevented 13 layoffs and preserved nearly half of the approximately 15 unfilled firefighting positions slated for elimination under the budget-balancing efforts.

“I honestly think that the firefighters know that what they do is important and the numbers of people doing it is important and if they lost employees, firefighting service would suffer,” said City Administrator Ted Danek. “The membership of Local 29 stepped up so that they could continue to protect the citizens.”

Approval of the deal by the City Council is almost a certainty.

“It’s very encouraging,” said City Councilman Jon Snyder. “Our fire staffing already is low. Without this, it would have been much lower.”

Mark Vietzke, president of Local 29, said of the more than 200 members who voted, 77 percent supported the agreement. Vietzke said the union’s biggest motivation was saving jobs.

“Once they’re gone, they’re tough to get back,” he said.

The Fire Department was hit particularly hard during the city’s last major budget crisis in late 2004 when the city eliminated more than 50 firefighter jobs.

As part of the deal this year, the city will leave six of the currently unfilled firefighting positions on the books but won’t hire anyone to fill them. The money for those six positions will be shifted to the department’s 2011 overtime budget.

Tim Dunivant, Spokane’s budget director, said it’s better to fill the shifts of vacant positions using overtime than through hiring until it’s clear that the city will have the ability to sustain the jobs beyond 2012.

“We don’t want to hire and fire,” he said.

The city won’t be obligated to continue paying overtime to staff the shifts that the six positions would have covered once the $384,000 it would have cost to fill the positions has been spent.

Also part of the agreement, the city agreed to move the pay raises that had been planned for 2011 to 2012. That raise is a 2 percent increase is January and a 1 percent increase in July, Vietzke said.

A 3 percent raise isn’t a bad deal for the city, considering the union’s recent increases. From 2000 through this year, Local 29 received raises greater than 3 percent all but three years. Only once in that period was it less than 3 percent.

Meanwhile, Verner has turned down the Spokane Police Guild’s counter-proposal on concessions. Guild President Ernie Wuthrich submitted the concept last week. He said Monday night that he expects to have another concession plan ready for Verner’s consideration today.

“All hope is not lost,” he said Monday night.

Of all the city’s unions the guild has the most to lose. Thirty-five guild members will by out of a job on Christmas unless a deal is reached.

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