Fresno firefighters reject contract offer; City Council taking action

The Fresno BeeJuly 9, 2014 

FIRE TRAINING

The structural integrity of a rooftop is checked as Fresno, Clovis and Fresno County fire departments conduct a training exercise Monday, June 2, 2014 in Fresno, Calif. The High Speed Rail Authority had purchased the empty commercial buildings to make way for high speed rail which offered a training opportunity for firefighters who practiced creating openings in the rooftop. The structure was at 43 and 57 E. Belmont near Roeding Park which formerly housed Horn Photo and other businesses.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

Fresno's rank-and-file firefighters have rejected the latest contract offer, setting the stage for an intense City Council meeting Thursday.

Union President Pete Flores on Wednesday said the vote was close, but gave no other details.

"We want the city to come back and negotiate a fair and honest contract," Flores said.

City Manager Bruce Rudd said he was disappointed.

It's unfortunate, Rudd said, that union leaders, "in spite of their best efforts, were unable to win approval of the contract offer they proposed to the City Council last month."

The firefighters' contract expired last year. Mayor Ashley Swearengin's budget assumes about $1.8 million in firefighter concessions over the next two years.

On Thursday morning, the council voted 5-2 to impose terms and conditions that would achieve those savings.

"It's unfortunate that we've gotten to this spot," council president Steve Brandau said Wednesday.

The challenge is that no one knows precisely where that spot is. That's because it's constantly shifting.

The firefighters and Swearengin have butted heads over money and staffing almost since she took office in January 2009 and the Great Recession kicked into high gear. The fire department gets much of its money from the general fund, the pot of money most vulnerable to economic downturns.

The firefighters made periodic contract concessions, as did other city unions.

The city's budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 is healthier but hardly vibrant. Swearengin is pursuing two sensible goals in a City Hall suddenly full of sensible but long-delayed goals. First, she wants to quickly retire millions in internal debts and begin aggressively restoring the reserve. Second, she wants short-term labor concessions to help pay for it.

Raises can be discussed later, she said.

The firefighters are being asked to pay more toward pensions and health care premiums, among other things. These have now been formally rejected by the union three times in the past six months. The most recent offer included a raise in mid-2016.

The council today will consider imposing the bigger bite into firefighter paychecks, but not the raise.

No one knows whether there are four votes to do this. The council last month voted 7-0 to give the firefighters one last shot at a deal. It's unlikely a vote to impose terms on a public-safety union would be unanimous.

If there is a majority, then Rudd and Flores come Monday could find themselves back at the negotiating table. Imposing terms isn't forever, Rudd said. It's a stopgap measure until there's a deal both sides can stomach.

Things get murkier if the council refuses to impose terms. Rudd said everyone would operate under the expired contract. The administration would start making plans to fill a nearly $850,000 hole in the budget. Those plans would make their way to the council, he said, but no telling when.

There are two key points here. Everyone agrees Fresno is ill-served by unceasing labor strife. Fresno's general fund budget ($286 million this year) is an amazingly flexible tool of politics.

The firefighters-administration battle of the past month has been dramatic. There were hush-hush talks while the council conducted its business on June 26. Flores made a surprise appearance in the council chamber at noon. Men and women firefighters in the afternoon told council members what it means to be a Fresno firefighter.

When today's meeting gets into high gear, Council President Brandau said, "I'm sure there will be passion."

 

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272, ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at fresnobee.com/city-beat.

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