Firefighters disturbed by budget cuts imposed by Fresno council

The Fresno BeeJuly 10, 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

Impassioned speeches from Fresno firefighters failed to sway the City Council on Thursday as it voted to impose conditions that cut costs.

The development came after both sides failed to reach a compromise despite months of labor negotiations.

Proposed cuts to health care, pensions and safety equipment were key issues for firefighters who spoke during the special council meeting.

The 5-2 council vote could save Fresno an estimated $1.8 million over the next two years -- the amount Mayor Ashley Swearengin's budget planned in firefighter concessions.

Labor negotiations have been underway since May 2013, when the firefighters' contract expired. The city declared an impasse in March and the last contract offer was rejected by firefighters Wednesday.

Council President Steve Brandau said he's never seen negotiations last so long, but stressed that changes imposed Thursday aren't necessarily final. Negotiations for a new contract can resume as early as "later today."

"This vote is just to break the logjam so that the whole process can be started again," he said.

City staff said imposing changes on the department would save Fresno about $73,240 a month.

Firefighter Carlton Jones said he was offended by talk about the fiscal impact of cuts.

Jones, pointing to a crowd of about 50 people at the meeting -- most of them firefighters -- said that "everyone here is worth that ... you're getting a very good discount by spending $73,000 on this group out here."

A large cut to the uniform allowance -- what firefighters use to buy things like fire-proof boots -- especially alarmed firefighter Leland Sharpe.

"I don't understand that," Sharpe said. "You're taking away from our equipment that keeps us safe ... That would be like having the police officers pay for their own bullets."

Council Member Lee Brand said cities pay for much more than police and fire, although those agencies are "certainly at the top of every list." Fresno firefighters are not overpaid, he said, but "we have to reconcile what you're worth to what we can pay."

The decision to impose conditions is difficult, Brand said, but necessary to keep the city in good shape.

Not all council members agreed. Council members Sal Quintero, District 5, and Blong Xiong, District 1, voted against imposing the changes.

"We keep talking about the economy and the need for more jobs in this area," Quintero said. "When a major corporation is looking to relocate in a city, what's one of the first things they look at? Public safety ... It's good business to have good public safety."

Another reason Quintero voted no: It would have been insincere to vote yes, he said.

City officials often say "thank you" to firefighters, Quintero said, but, "How sincere are we in terms of wanting to work with you ... and saying, 'Let's sit down and hammer this out.' "

Quintero said his no vote is his "small way of saying thanks and let's continue the talks."

Other council members and city staff stressed that they have been working with firefighters -- and remain eager to continue -- but after more than a year of back-and-forth negotiations, something had to be decided.

Council member Oliver Baines shared sentiments echoed by colleagues: "This council has tremendous respect for the firefighters. Tremendous. ... These decisions are very difficult."

But those statements didn't garner much sympathy from firefighters.

"An agreement I thought was a two-way street," said fire Capt. Christian Palmer. "It's not even about the salary, but about the comments and the way we've been treated."

Rick Steitz, president of Fresno's Amalgamated Transit Union, reminded council of negotiations with his union over a year ago. If firefighter consent is disregarded, Steitz warned, "the effect on morale and labor relations will be very negative for this city and very long-lasting."

Pete Flores, president of Fresno Firefighters' Local 753, said it was "very frustrating" to be so close to reaching a negotiated agreement, only to have the city impose conditions. "It's definitely wearing and tearing on the employees."

Flores said firefighters understand that the city needs to address health care and pension reform, but he described the imposed conditions as "drastic" and "extreme." The changes equate to more than a $200 cut monthly, between salary and benefits, for each of about 280 firefighters, Flores said.

What will firefighters do now?

"We give the city a call," Flores said. "Whether that be (city manager) Bruce Rudd or the mayor directly, to see if they want to continue negotiating with us."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, cgeorge@fresnobee.com or @CarmenGeorge

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