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County’s side of firefighter flap

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Council felt fact-finders report was not based on any analysis

By Carol A. Clark

Los Alamos County officials are speaking out for the first time about contact negotiations, which reached an impasse with Firefighters’ Association Local 3279.

“This notion that we somehow don’t value the firefighters is just absurd,” said County Council Chair Michael Wismer in response to recent comments by the firefighters’ union.

The county approved a 5-percent increase for firefighters below battalion chief rank. Union Vice President Capt. Paul Grano called the raise, “a slap in the face.” Grano said it’s really equivalent to just a 1.6 percent increase for three years and is unequal to what others in the department earn.

“Battalion chiefs received a 26-percent or average 5.2-percent a year wage increase,” he said. “This is the second time the council has unilaterally approved an unwanted contract. Last year they forced a 3 percent wage increase on local firefighters.”

Fire Chief Doug Tucker sat with other department  management in meetings with the county and said that 3 percent increase was just a placeholder until a higher increase could be negotiated.

In April 2009, the firefighters had gone more than 12 months without a pay increase, Tucker said. The council met to discuss where things stood with the union and had already approved a 3-percent increase for the rest of the county.

At that time, the fire department had received a letter from the Attorney General’s Office stating retroactive pay and bonuses were no longer allowed, he said.

“I wanted the firefighters to at least get some kind of raise while the negotiations continued, but we could not convince the union,” Tucker said. “They called it a prohibitive practice and rejected it.”

Attorney Barry Paisner represented the union. He asked for an 8.5 percent wage increase, which Tucker said was not financially possible.

“You can’t rob Peter to pay Paul – it’s not allowed,” he said. “There’s a lot of misrepresentation of these issues and it’s difficult because we deal in facts and they (union) deal in emotions. We have a responsibility to our customers, which are the public, the county and LANL and the council has a responsibility to every county department, not just the fire department.”

When contract negotiations reached an impasse and went to fact finding, both parties agreed in the ground rules, Tucker said.

“That is why we didn’t comment publicly before, we were honoring the terms of the agreement,” he said.

The county council is responsible by charter for all financial matters in the county budget including salaries and wage increases for the entire county, Wismer said. Every year the county goes through a market analysis to determine what salary is equitable in municipalities across the country.

In 2009, every department manager had a range for increases of 2 percent and 3 percent for a total of 5 percent, determined by merit, Wismer said.

“It’s particularly frustrating to us to be attacked with such animosity by the firefighters because we are responsible for all county employees and not just the firefighters,” he said.

Wismer said that after reviewing the fact finder report, the majority of councilors felt it was not based on any analysis.

Council discussed its options in a multitude of sessions, he said.   
“We felt further negotiations were fruitless, that the fact finder report was insufficient and given the fact that firefighters now had gone some 18 months without a raise, we chose to impose a 5 percent across the board pay raise and a 2 percent incentive for special needs cases,” Wismer said.

“In all of the deliberations throughout that 21-month period, it was clear that all of the councilors and county management valued the service provided by the firefighters to Los Alamos County and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The very difficult decision for us was determining an appropriate pay raise for the firefighters that was fair and equitable to the rest of the county and to our plan.”

Following the council’s vote on the raise, Wismer and Council Vice Chair Sharon Stover spoke with some of the angered firefighters.

“I have to say that I have taken some lessons learned and I think our county has to re-evaluate our collective bargaining process and evolve towards a more collaborative, interests-based negotiation process as is enacted by the Harvard School of Government,” Wismer said.

Stover said that through the years she and other councilors and county officials have called on the fire department for fire and medical services.

“Many of us have called the firefighters to our homes for emergencies with our families and I can tell you that we all we believe they could never be paid enough money for what they do for this community,” Stover said.