Wichita City Council to look at firefighter contract

Labor contract negotiations are never simple, but talks between the city and the local firefighters union went smoothly enough in recent months that they could finally hammer out a proposed deal.

That contract, which calls for an across-the-board 2.5 percent pay increase for 2012 and 2013 and addresses staffing levels for the first time, will be presented to the City Council on Tuesday. If the council approves the contract, it will be the first negotiated deal the firefighters and city have had in nearly two years.

"Before it was man your battle stations and go to war," said Rocky Bumgarner, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 135. "That didn't occur this time."

City Manager Robert Layton said, "We're real pleased with the way the process went."

But first there had to be significant changes to how the process was carried out.

Firefighters have been working in 2011 on a one-year, 2010 contract, which the council agreed to retroactively impose in early January. The deal was largely the same as the three-year agreement that expired in December 2009 — with a few exceptions.

One of those called for both sides to learn how to work together. So before negotiations began, a federal mediator, the city and firefighter representatives devoted a day last spring to learning how to do just that.

"Out of that came an agreement of how we would deal with issues and a commitment to better understanding each other's positions," Layton said.

The mediator sat in on all seven negotiating sessions, but attorneys for both sides weren't allowed to be there.

"Attorneys don't work under the contract; we do," Bumgarner said. "Some posturing went on that didn't need to be there."

At the same time, he said it was very productive to have the mediator in the room.

"He could look at you and say, 'You're being a little ridiculous,' " Bumgarner said. "He could say that to me and my guys or the city, and he was probably right. We just needed to be told that."

Layton wasn't at most of the negotiating meetings, but he said he saw enough to agree with Bumgarner.

"Having a mediator in the sessions really made a difference," he said. "Both sides worked really hard to develop a sounder relationship."

It wasn't always warm and fuzzy, but a deal was reached. A compromise was part of the proposed pay increase.

The current average annual pay for a firefighter with the Wichita department is $46,194. Starting pay is about $38,000. Captains top out at about $65,000.

About 55 percent of the 380 firefighters covered in the contract — captains and below — have been receiving annual 2.5 percent pay increases as they reach levels of years of service. The other 45 percent have exhausted all 15 of the step increases and haven't had a raise in two years, Bumgarner said.

As part of the proposed agreement, there would be a freeze on the 15 step increases for 2012 and 2013. But there would be a 2.5 percent increase across the board for both years.

That means about 170 firefighters would be getting a raise who wouldn't have had one otherwise. The others will still get their 2.5 percent boost — just not through the step method.

"With the city's financial condition, we weren't able to do something across the board, plus the step increases," Layton said. "But it was important to address that inequity. (Freezing the step pay increases for two years) was something the union compromised on."

Cost for the pay raises in 2012 would be $718,000, according to a city staff report.

"It's nice everybody gets some money," Bumgarner said.

Minimum mandatory staffing levels was something the union has sought for some time, but it's never been in a contract.

And a mandatory level still isn't in the proposed one. But the deal does call for a minimum of 117 firefighters to be on duty at all times — the number the union had sought — to "ensure safety and effectiveness."

A clause in the contract, however, says that number isn't required. That sounds conflicting, but both sides agree it shouldn't be a problem.

"I call that clause a disclaimer in case something goes wrong, which we understand," Bumgarner said. "Minimum staffing is a big issue. It's about safety for the firefighters and the public."

Circumstances such as a rash of illness or injuries on top of planned vacations could cause the staffing level to temporarily drop below 117, Layton said.

"It's not mandatory," he said. "But we're going to make a good-faith effort to maintain that staffing level. We'll do what we can to maintain that level."

He noted putting money in the 2012 budget to hire 15 additional firefighters will help address that level.

The firefighters approved the contract earlier this month, Bumgarner said.

The contract would be back-dated to Dec. 25, 2010, and would continue through Dec. 20, 2013. That means it would be a three-year deal, but with a little more than two years remaining.

"The process can still be improved," Bumgarner said, "but I think we laid some groundwork."