Firefighters relinquish back pay

PUBLISHED: April 4, 2006

Union saves city $100,000 but Royal Oak still must boost department staffing

ROYAL OAK- At odds for years over staffing levels, the firefighters have agreed to give up $100,000 of back pay so the cash-poor city can save some money as it meets an arbitrator's ruling to increase manpower to 16 employees per shift.

Mayor James Ellison and Firefighter David Cummins signed the deal at Monday's meeting of the City Commission, which has had a contentious relationship with the union ever since members convinced voters to set a minimum staffing level in 2004.

Although the city still won't meet the new charter requirement of 1.17 firefighters for every 1,000 residents, Royal Oak will increase the manpower level by two firefighters per 24-hour shift.

Arbitrator David Tanzman also awarded the firefighters retroactive overtime pay because the administration kept the department at 14 firefighters per shift while the issue was in dispute. The union gave up that pay on Monday.

"We don't want to bring the city to its knees financially. We want to do our jobs safely," said Cummins, the new president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 431.

City officials lauded the union for helping them deal with a budget shortfall, recently estimated at $2.7 million.

The union gesture also sets a new tone for upcoming contract talks.

"This is like a whole new day," the mayor said. "This is significant."

In addition to settling differences on the manpower level and back pay, the city agreed to fill vacancies in the department by promoting firefighters, Cummins said.

"They still don't meet the charter requirement so we will see where we go with that," he added.

Neither Ellison nor Cummins could say how many firefighters per shift are needed to meet the voter mandate but the mayor put it this way: "That would take a lot more people or a lot more overtime."

Ellison said a key component of the agreement inked this week is that safety no longer is an issue when firefighters respond to major emergencies or are inundated with calls for help.

Cummins said that was his goal all along. Union members said their biggest issue was sending enough employees to an incident to keep firefighters and the public safe.

The arbitrator had called the 14-firefighter minimum "senseless" from the standpoint of safety and security. He noted that the fire engines were running with two firefighters instead of the recommended four and that emergencies could arise where every firefighter on duty had to respond.