May 20--It's been a great week for Akron firefighters.
First, the fire union and city reached a tentative agreement Monday, the day before the two sides were scheduled to begin a state fact-finding process.
Then, city and union leaders learned Wednesday that Akron will receive over $6 million in federal funds it requested to bring back 38 laid-off firefighters.
"We finalized the language for our contract. We can start bringing our guys back," said Phil Gauer, president of the fire union. "That puts us in great shape. We can start from here on fresh."
City and union leaders were anxiously awaiting word of how much Akron would receive of the highly competitive Staffing for Adequate Fire and Response (SAFER) funds. With millions more in requests than available funds, Mayor Don Plusquellic had said he didn't think Akron would receive its full request of $6,017,559.
"It's really a happy day and a pleasurable day to see this partnership of the federal government and the city to see these 38 hired back," Plusquellic said Wednesday.
The funds will cover the salaries and benefits of the firefighters for two years.
Akron laid off 38 firefighters and 53 other employees in October to help offset a projected budget deficit. City leaders promised at the time to apply for SAFER funds to reinstate the firefighters.
City and union leaders had lobbied federal officials, urging that Akron receive its entire request. Ohio's congressional delegation wrote letters of support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the agency that distributes the funds.
U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Township, called Plusquellic and Gauer Wednesday afternoon to share the good news.
Gauer sent an e-mail to the laid-off firefighters, and he and other union leaders called each of them. Several firefighters have taken jobs in other cities, though union and city leaders expect -- and hope -- most will return to work in Akron.
Union leaders had raised concerns about slower response times, given the manpower shortage from the layoffs and retirements. Gauer hopes bringing back the laid-off firefighters will help address that, though he said the department still will be down from its budgeted strength of 392.
"This will greatly help the safety of the firefighters and of the citizens," he said.
The SAFER money requires cities to maintain the level of staffing they had when they applied for the funds, plus the firefighters who are brought back from layoff. For Akron, that would equate to about 350 firefighters.
Akron already has had two retirements since January, when the city applied for the SAFER grant. Chief Larry Bunner said the city likely will apply for a waiver from FEMA to not replace those two positions.
About 20 firefighters are expected to retire next year. Bunner said whether the city applies for waivers for these positions will depend on the financial situation at the time.
Plusquellic has urged federal officials to permit cities that receive SAFER funds to put in for waivers if the economy worsens. Without the waivers, he said, cities could be forced to lay off more employees from other divisions, such as police, in order to hire firefighters to meet the grant requirements.
"That's the situation the federal government is looking at -- to be able to bring fairness to the process," he said.
Plusquellic has said that either union concessions or layoffs will be needed this year to balance the budget. Union leaders have questioned the severity of the city's finances and why cuts can't be made elsewhere.
Under the fire union's tentative pact, the union agreed to forgo raises for the next two years and to other concessions, including giving up overtime pay on five holidays, taking on a share of health-care premiums and deferring longevity payments, which are bonuses based on years of service.
Union members will vote on the agreement May 26 and 27.
The city is still at impasse with the unions representing police and service employees and is continuing negotiations with the nurses union.
Plusquellic said he hopes the city will be in a better financial position in two years and will be able to assume the cost of the 38 firefighters' salaries and benefits. Though the tentative agreement and SAFER grant announcement happened within days, the mayor said he's unaware of any correlation between the two.
Bunner praised the city's firefighters for stepping up while the department's strength was down. He noted that Akron, unlike other major cities, shut down no fire stations or companies during its shortage.
"They did their job," he said. "Was it harder? Yes. They're professional and they did it. I can't thank them enough."
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.