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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City firefighters asked to bargain again

Rejected contract negotiated under previous mayor, council

Spokane city officials and the firefighters union are expected to go back to the bargaining table after the City Council voted 4-3 to reject a new three-year labor contract on Monday.

Mayor David Condon has indicated that he wants to reopen talks to reach a new agreement that would be acceptable to at least four council members, according to city spokeswoman Marlene Feist.

“We will go back to the drawing board and see what we can come up with,” Feist said Tuesday. “We hope that Local 29 will be willing to do that with us.”

The contract rejected Monday was approved by former Mayor Mary Verner in December during the waning days of her term.

Lt. Mark Vietzke, president of Local 29, said his membership is willing to renew talks. But Vietzke told council members Monday night that the union is not willing to settle for less than called for in the previous contract.

Vietzke said he was “frustrated” by Monday’s outcome and fears that the council’s decision could sour future talks.

Council members who voted against the contract said they were uncomfortable with the proposed deal, which calls for improvements in health benefits and a 1.9 percent salary increase in 2014, the third year of the contract.

Councilman Steve Salvatori, who joined the council at the start of the year and was part of the majority voting against the contract, said he wants to be involved in the discussions leading up to any agreement.

He also said he is concerned that the city might not be able to afford what amounts to a projected 35 percent increase in the city’s health insurance premium payments for firefighters and their families in 2013.

Currently, the city pays about 83 percent of health premiums for firefighters and their families. That would increase to 100 percent in 2013, but it would be capped in 2014 by a maximum increase of 4 percent to be paid by the city.

“There is no secret what our budget situation is,” Salvatori said.

He was joined by council members Nancy McLaughlin, Mike Fagan and Mike Allen in voting no.

The contract calls for no salary increase in 2013, but firefighters received a 3 percent wage boost at the start of this year under the expiring contract, Salvatori pointed out. That payment was delayed for budgetary relief in 2011.

Council President Ben Stuckart said on Tuesday that he is concerned that the council passed up a good deal.

He said the cost of the contract was less than the projected increase in city revenue, so it would put at least a three-year halt to a problem of labor costs outstripping tax collections.

The annualized cost of the contract was 2.38 percent a year for wages and benefits, he said, which was less than half of the cost of the expiring contract.

Firefighters currently make up to $87,200 a year in base pay at their lowest rank and up to $91,900 a year as fire equipment operators. Those figures do not include overtime pay. The Fire Department and its emergency medical services fund are operating on a $42 million budget this year.

Stuckart said he is concerned that the rejection could harm future negotiations not only with firefighters but with other unions.

He said he was hoping to wrap up the fire contract so that the City Council and mayor’s office could concentrate on a new Spokane Police Guild contract. Bargaining with the guild is expected to include talks over police department reforms, which are outlined in a resolution adopted Monday by the council.

In addition, the city could be forced into binding arbitration with firefighters.

In that event, Stuckart said, the city might be required under state law to spend more money than under the proposal rejected Monday.

Arbitration considers average compensation in comparable departments, and currently, compensation in Spokane is lower than several of the comparable departments in Washington, he said.

“That’s where the risk is,” he said.

The city has avoided binding arbitration over the years out of fear that the city would lose. The last time the city and Local 29 went to arbitration was in 1988.

In addition to wages and benefits, the contract also would have shifted deputy fire marshal jobs to civilian positions, which was intended to better meet the needs of property owners undergoing fire inspections.

Stuckart called it an “economic development issue” in a news release Tuesday.

The release was sent out jointly by Stuckart and council members Jon Snyder and Amber Waldref, who voted in favor of the contract.

“Rejecting this contract puts Spokane at risk for higher costs for years to come,” the release said.