Layoffs could have been avoided

How the city, firefighters got where nobody wanted to go

Steve Harrison had been president of the Chico firefighters’ union for all of nine days when his membership got a letter that sent shockwaves through the stations. After two pages of exposition on the city’s deficit-diminishment strategy and negotiations to accomplish that aim, City Manager Dave Burkland dropped the following bombshell:

“Having been unable to reach agreement that meets the budget reduction goals,” he wrote, “the city will begin the process of ‘layoffs’ effective on February 9, 2009.”

Five firefighters—those most recently hired—got pink slips, and one vacant position will not be filled. “This is personally painful for me, the City Council, and city staff,” Burkland concluded, “yet necessary.”

“That hit us like a ton of bricks,” Harrison said Monday morning (Jan. 12), still reeling from the news.

His union—International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2734—will meet today (Jan. 15) “on how to handle this current event.” Yet even if members vote to accept the city’s terms, they might not be able to forestall the furloughs. IAFF bylaws require a 30-day review period following approval of a contract; the earliest the second ratification vote could take place would be after the termination date. That presupposes having contract language in hand, which Harrison said he didn’t.

Burkland, meanwhile, reiterated Tuesday that “we want to keep the firefighters, but I don’t know if we can.” He noted that “the ratification period, that’s within their own policy, not city policy” and said he didn’t know whether he would recommend that the City Council view a preliminary approval vote from the union as binding enough to rescind the layoffs.

Ironically, the sides weren’t very far apart when the city took its action, and both are still open to resolution. Harrison said he thinks “the intent of the firefighters and the city is legit. It’s just, ‘How do we get there?’ “

How did we get here? The process began in mid-2008, when the City Council approved a budget that required concessions from the eight employee bargaining groups.

Six new agreements have been signed. The Chico Police Officers Association, whose pact expired in 2007, remains in negotiations (in part because of “me, too” clauses linked to compensation firefighters receive). The IAFF, despite being the union most vocal in its support of concessions, was unable to come to terms by year’s end.

As a result, terms from the existing contract remain in effect. Those include a 4 percent raise for all 71 firefighters, effective Jan. 1, as well as health insurance with premiums wholly paid by the city.

The City Council met in closed session to discuss options. With the raises going through on the next paycheck, Vice Mayor Tom Nickell explained Tuesday, “we had to go to plan B. The city manager instructed the chief [Fire Chief James Beery] that we have to find $650,000. We can’t wait; we have to do it now. We’re in a financial crisis.”

That $650,000 translates into the eliminated positions.

Harrison said the firefighters already approved terms that cover the bulk of that figure. IAFF members, in a five-hour meeting, agreed to forgo entirely their raises for 2009 and 2010, plus reduce the starting salary for new firefighters by 5 percent.

The stumbling block involved health-insurance premiums. The other bargaining groups agreed to a “75/25” structure—the city pays 75 percent, the employee 25 percent. IAFF officers did not bring that to their members.

“I told the city manager it looks good to us; we just need to educate the membership,” Harrison said. “In retrospect, I wish we would have applied ourselves more as union leaders, but I didn’t think it was a deal-breaker.

“Our share is only around $65,000 of the $450,000 in the city. We had $600,000 on the table [i.e. the raises they weren’t going to take]. Take the money and run and put it in the city coffers—that was my take. I took the wrong take.”

Burkland, following what Nickell said was the lead from the council, considered the raises and insurance as two halves of a single package, as negotiated with all the unions.

There was another “deal-breaker,” however: semantics. The firefighters wanted language in the agreement stating that they’d get no raises—as opposed to the 1 percent cost-of-living adjustments in the other six contracts—in order to maintain staffing levels.

Harrison referred to this as “a receipt” acknowledging the firefighters’ intent behind the additional wage concession. The city sees this as a guarantee. Problem is, the 1 percent in question is not enough to cover the staffing level the IAFF wants to ensure.

“This [deficit-reduction plan] is to put us on the path to financial solvency,” Burkland said. “We know things are getting worse with the economy, both statewide and locally. What we need to be able to do is gain those net savings to be able to balance our funds; those net savings can’t be reached if we put in a [staffing] guarantee.”

So, where do we go from here? Burkland said he remains open to negotiation. As for the IAFF, Harrison said, “I don’t know how it’s going to come out, but I can tell you this: The firefighters are committed to 0-0 [two raiseless years] and the 5 percent reduction in starting salaries.”

One thing both sides agree upon is Harrison’s view that “a dollar is a dollar—if we can find that dollar, that’s all that matters.” But: “It just seems to us that a dollar wasn’t really a dollar—a dollar was tied to some stuff that turned out differently than we expected.”