Washington Firefighters Save Themselves From Axe

Tacoma firefighters accepted $1.6M in concessions to save 44 jobs.


As expected, Tacoma's City Council accepted $1.6 million of concessions Tuesday from the city's fire union aimed to help spare 44 firefighters from a first round of layoffs amid an ongoing budget crisis.

But, just as they did when striking a similar deal with the police union last week, several council members stressed that public-safety jobs remain at risk amid more budget cuts still to come.

"We're not through this situation in any way, shape or form," Councilman Jake Fey said. "We've still got some distance to go."

Still facing an estimated $13 million general fund shortfall, the city already is planning for a second round of cuts by March 31. The council also is now considering a variety of longer-term measures that, if approved, would impose some new city taxes and fees.

Most of the fire union's concessions come from an agreement to defer until 2013 a 3.6 percent cost-of-living raise due to more than 360 fire employees this year.

The union also agreed to waive any unused city matching contributions made in 2011 and 2012 to firefighters' deferred-compensation accounts.

The firefighters' concessions are nearly identical to those approved last week for Tacoma's rank-and-file police officers. One big difference: officers also gave up a 1 percent payment for retroactive pay, a benefit firefighters don't get.

Also like police, the fire union included a condition on its concessions: Should the city lay off even a single firefighter by year's end, it must immediately pay the deferred raises to all union members.

City labor relations manager John Dryer told the council Tuesday that both unions remain committed to ongoing "mitigation efforts" to deal with the city's next round of budget cuts.

Amid an outcry that a first round of public-safety layoffs proposed in December would put the city at risk, the council agreed to postpone job cuts to 100 police and fire employees for up to 30 days, giving the unions and city more time to negotiate concessions.

In all, the city now has made more than $20 million of adjustments to address a projected $33 million gap in the 2011-12 general fund. That still leaves a $13 million hole.

As Interim City Manager Rey Arellano prepares a second round of proposed cuts, the council also is considering several controversial measures to generate revenue. The proposals include imposing a new $20 car-tab fee, implementing a 5 percent ticket-admissions tax for some nonprofit events and eliminating a tax exemption for health care nonprofits. The council has yet to firmly commit to any of the measures.

In the meantime, public safety remains a likely target during the next round of cuts, simply because it makes up about 70 percent of the general fund, officials have said.

City records show gross pay and benefits for all of Tacoma's police and fire personnel -- including top administrators -- climbed annually from 2007 to 2010, before each dipped in 2011. Total police compensation rose from $40.8 million in 2007 to $45.9 million in 2010, while fire rose from $43.9 million to $48 million over the same time.

Excluding overtime pay and benefits, base wages for Tacoma's fire union now range from $45,677 for an entry-level firefighter to $124,883 for a top-tier medical services officer. At least half of the fire union's members are firefighters, Matt Frank, the fire union's vice president, said Tuesday.

The union's concessions mark the second consecutive year Tacoma's firefighters have postponed their 3.6 percent COLA raise. The union's last general pay raise -- 1 percent -- came in 2010, though firefighters have continued to receive annual city STEP increases based on tenure.

Under their current contract, firefighters also will be eligible to receive up to a 5 percent market-based raise in 2013. That hike would kick in only if Tacoma's firefighters aren't paid the second-highest among comparable departments, including Central Pierce, Bellevue, Everett, Kent and Spokane.

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