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City proposes straight pay cuts during union negotiations with firefighters

By Staff | Apr 26, 2011

The city put straight pay cuts on the table Tuesday during negotiations with the local firefighters union as an alternative to its current proposal.
John Hament, the city’s labor attorney, proposed an 8 percent pay reduction for rank and file employees, or a 6 percent pay cut coupled with a 2 percent pension contribution increase.
The Cape Coral Professional Firefighters Local 2424 has offered up a 3 percent pay cut, with a 2 percent pension increase.
For battalion chiefs, the city proposed Tuesday a 6 percent pay reduction, or a 4 percent pay cut with a 2 percent pension contribution increase. The union has offered a 2 percent pension contribution increase, without any pay cuts.
The city has also proposed that the union come back to the city’s insurance provider, Blue Cross Blue Shield. About 130 Cape firefighters, both active and retired, opted out of that coverage and set up their own insurance with another provider.
The city is currently paying about $676 per employee for health insurance premiums. If the union does not return to the city’s health provider, the city has proposed that it will not cover the insurance premiums as of Sept. 30.
“We are the ones who put ourselves in harm’s way every day,” Mark Muerth, the union’s president, said.
He called the city’s proposal to stop paying premiums “a slap in the face.”
Hament cited potential legal issues as a reason for the proposal, as well as avoiding having other employee groups feel they would like to opt out, which would increase costs for those employees still in the city’s insurance plan.
“It’s a concern to the city,” he said.
“Everybody looks at everybody else,” Hament added.
Union representatives said they were prompted to go outside of the city’s plan after two firefighters were cut off by Blue Cross Blue Shield. One was involved in a serious accident, while the other had a traumatic brain injury.
According to Muerth, the rank and file negotiations have been going on for more than a year, while the battalion chief talks have been going on for about five or six months.
“We’re frustrated,” he said. “It’s beyond frustrated at this point.”
During Tuesday’s negotiations, Muerth questioned why the city is OK with smaller pay reductions from other unions, like 3 percent, but not for fire.
“The relative value of the pension benefits are higher with police and fire,” Hament said, adding that the current economic climate is not the time to try and remedy inequalities between employees.
“It’s just not the focus right now,” he said. “Unfortunately, the city is trying to cut expenditures, not fix.”
Muerth pointed out that the union has been willing to concede on benefits. It also has not asked for wage hikes, despite a salary freeze for at least three years for battalion chiefs and a freeze last year for rank and file employees.
The union also questioned the city’s reserves and spending.
Hament explained that he has been informed that there is only about $1 million in the general fund for things like employee expenses. He added that city officials are expecting a budget shortfall of $8.3 million to $9.6 million.
“The budget’s upside down by several million,” Hament said.
Muerth rattled of a list of projects reportedly funded by unanticipated amended budget monies including lot mowing, contract positions in the city manager’s office and early voting.
“There’s plenty of spending going on,” he said, adding that it is just when it comes to employee expenses there is not a lot of spending taking place.
Other areas of contention Tuesday included the union wanting an effort put forth toward seeking union-made or American-made apparel and accessories. City officials explained that city purchasing guidelines could be problematic.
“A message,” Muerth argued. “It’s like a message.”
Union representatives also questioned allowing the fire chief to select the fire marshall without adhering to the rule of seniority, even if the candidates have the same qualifications.
“The most senior person may not be the most qualified,” Fire Chief Bill Van Helden said.
If the city and union cannot come to agreement, an impasse will be declared.
“We’re going to have some type of resolution,” Muerth said.
More negotiations are expected to be scheduled in the coming weeks.