Other Opinions

Pete Flores: We were first responders to city's fiscal woes

FresnoJune 26, 2014 

We've been in contract negotiations with the city of Fresno for about a year. The city began this process by assuming approximately 4% in employee concessions and then spent about $800,000 on an attorney to ensure they got them. A rhetorical question: How do you negotiate in "good faith" when your employer assumes you will agree to another pay cut and spends those concessions paying a professional to "get results"?

In 2009 the city spoke openly about a "fiscal emergency." Fresno firefighters responded by giving up their annual physical evaluations. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous profession; it's a debilitating one, as well. The No. 1 killer in our profession isn't getting burned, it's heart failure. Each year nearly 100 firefighters around the country die in the line of duty; about half of those are due to heart attacks. The bottom line: This job beats us up, sometimes lethally. Giving up our annual physicals has saved the city nearly $1 million and continues to bring in revenue each year while we roll the dice on our personal health.

We have continued to respond to our city's financial emergency with furloughs, staffing cuts, vacation realignment, leave-time donations, salary cuts, overtime reduction and acting out of rank. These concessions have saved the city about $13 million over five years. City leaders are quick to point out that we received raises, as well; this is correct. Since 2008 we have received about 4% in salary raises and a 2% cut in pension contributions. The total cost is approximately $2.6 million spread over five years. In some people's minds, these benefits negate the concessions we've made, but we feel that is unreasonable.

The city insists they are not asking us to take another pay cut; rather they are asking us to pay more toward our health care and pension system. Semantics aside, we feel it's time for the city to find another revenue stream. As firefighters we constantly place ourselves in harm's way and arguably have the largest risk profile of any employee group. We are exposed to all manner of germs, pathogens, toxins and carcinogens during our duties. And some, if not all, of these exposures are brought home to our families. The proposed increase in health care puts our families at greater risk. The one-size-fits-all approach the city wants to take with its employees on health care is inappropriate given the discrepancy of risk for firefighters.

People often ask us how we do what we do, how can we see the things we see and continue to function? The answer is simple: family. When we come home at the end of a long shift, our families have the special ability to make all of the trauma, stress and incredibly sad things we see fade away. Our fight for health care is a fight to protect those who protect us.

The city is asking us to invest more toward our future, when the reality is that our future is very secure. The Fresno police and fire retirement system is more than 100% funded — and has been for the last 19 years. For 17 of those years it was so overfunded the city didn't pay its share into the system, saving taxpayers over $126 million since 1997. To ask us to pay more is not based on market or fund performance, but on politics. Pension systems have become planks in political platforms and rather than facts, the public gets rhetoric. The fact is, the Fresno police and fire pension system is a model for public pension systems throughout the nation.

Fresno fire is one of the oldest fire departments in the United States. Men and women have been giving of themselves to the people of this city since 1877, and if there is one thing we've learned how to do, it's how to help others. When a fire engine shows up, people know that help has arrived. We bring hope to terror and peace to chaos. When the city needed our help because of a fiscal emergency, we responded. Our response saved the city over $13 million. We're not asking for any more money, but we are asking the city to identify another funding stream and stop taking from the people who've shouldered more than their fair share of the burden.

 

Pete Flores is president of Fresno City Firefighters, IAFF Local 753.

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