Fresno firefighters, City Hall try again to make a deal

The Fresno BeeJune 26, 2014 

Something binding has to happen someday in contract talks between Fresno firefighters and City Hall.

But it didn't happen as expected on Thursday.

The City Council on a 7-0 vote gave its blessing to a proposed labor deal with the rank-and-file firefighters' union. The union's negotiating team will take the offer to its members for a vote on July 7 and 9.

The council was slated to vote Thursday on whether to impose terms and conditions on a bargaining unit whose contract expired last year. The administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin was confident it had the necessary four votes.

Instead, council members will wait two weeks to see if both sides are on the same page or the heavy hand of coercion is necessary.

Swearengin says the city needs $1.8 million of firefighter concessions over the next two years to balance the budget.

Firefighters say they've already returned cash to city coffers until it hurts.

The proposed deal is like previous offers that fizzled: More firefighter contributions to health-care and pension and a raise after two years, among other things.

The newest proposal extends the deal to Jan. 1, 2017 and puts a percentage cap on maximum firefighter contributions to health care premiums.

Union President Pete Flores reminded council members of his members' value to Fresno.

"When that bell rings, we go," Flores said. "We go and help, 40,000 times a year."

City Manager Bruce Rudd after the meeting reminded firefighters of the value of compromise.

"We encourage the members to ratify the agreement so we can continue to move forward together to serve the residents of Fresno," Rudd said.

Thus ended a series of events that would have been dramatic if they hadn't been so confusing.

It began in mid-morning as the council chamber slowly filled with off-duty firefighters, their families and various supporters. Everyone assumed the test of wills and rhetoric would begin before lunch.

But council members, as is their habit, lingered over other matters. The noon hour was about to strike and it appeared Council President Steve Brandau would ask everyone to return at 1:30.

That's when Brandau surprised the audience by bringing Flores to the public microphone.

Flores said the union had sent a letter to the administration that morning pitching a reworked proposal. Flores said the two sides had been wrestling with it in City Hall cubbyholes.

There had been an unusual amount of scurrying among council members and top administration officials from dais to back rooms.

The council returned from lunch and went into closed session for more than two hours. Dozens from the firefighter contingent waited.

Brandau kept his word to allow everyone a shot at free speech. What followed may have been a hint at what's really afoot.

Short-term, the city is almost guaranteed to get the desired concessions from the firefighters. City Hall is no longer looking at bankruptcy, but the budget approved recently by the council is tight. There's no indication a council majority wants to rip a huge hole in Swearengin's spending plan by conceding to firefighters' wishes, then consume the summer moaning about the mayor's efforts to fill a hole she didn't dig.

It's equally clear the council and administration have little stomach for big-footing a union of men and women who risk their lives to protect Fresno.

The firefighters and firefighter wives who spoke hit on many themes: The millions of dollars in previous concessions, the brittle nature of earlier city promises, the need for more staff and equipment, the gut-wrenching effort and deep commitment required to serve a city of a half-million souls.

In other words, they said the fire department, despite a new budget that adds firefighters and equipment, is in crisis. Police officials have suggested as much for their department.

Long-term, City Hall on Thursday may have taken another step toward a public-safety sales tax measure.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272, ghostetter@fresnobee.com or @GeorgeHostetter on Twitter.

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