Politics & Government

Sedgwick County OKs firefighters contract after union dispute

FILE - Sedgwick County firefighters douse a series of grass fires along K-42 in 2014. (Feb. 26, 2014)
FILE - Sedgwick County firefighters douse a series of grass fires along K-42 in 2014. (Feb. 26, 2014) File photo

A months-long impasse between the Sedgwick County Fire District and a firefighters union came to an end Wednesday after a sometimes-bitter discussion.

The Sedgwick County Commission adopted a contract over the objections of International Association of Firefighters Local 2612.

The two sides disagree over firefighter compensation. The fire district serves the county’s unincorporated areas and smaller cities.

The commission, which doubles as the board for the fire district, has the right by state law to enact a contract this long into the impasse, said assistant county counselor Michael North.

The contract does contain some raises and bonuses. The county contends it can’t meet all of what the union wants because the fire district doesn’t generate enough money.

But the union’s leaders say the county’s proposal didn’t do enough to help firefighters, compared with what other departments pay firefighters.

“Anything and everything you’ve proposed to us actually damages their future and does not benefit them at all,” said union president Dave Thompson.

‘Freezing any pay increases’

The new two-year contract reinstated a previous pay plan between the union and the fire district.

About two-thirds of union firefighters will get a raise of between 1.8 and 3.7 percent. The remaining firefighters will not get a raise but will get a 1 percent bonus in 2016.

All union firefighters will get a 2 percent bonus but no raise in 2017.

Two provisions were added to the contract after previously being tabled: The fire district can use qualified part-time employees and can create and use a volunteer or reserve firefighter force. The volunteers will be able to do any work covered by the contract with the union.

‘Our lives are on the line’

The union wanted pay increases instead of one-time bonuses.

“It is the appropriate amount of money to provide to these guys, and it is more than affordable for the fire district as a whole,” said Matt Huntsman, a lawyer for the union.

Thompson said the district should not rely on part-time firefighters.

“We are not going to stand for part-timers standing next to us, with less training, less experience, less knowledge, when our lives are on the line and our management staff along with this fire district board runs us short,” he said.

Jeff Cowley, a 32-year veteran of the district, said the county needs to do more to compensate firefighters with less tenure.

“City of Wichita is hiring. KCK is hiring. They just got a 5 percent increase. Topeka, they’re hiring, too. Derby’s hiring. There’s a lot of departments that are coming and being big players in the game,” Cowley said. “You’re sending the wrong message to every one of these guys.”

Thompson mentioned telling the Wichita fire union president that “I’ve got some very competent and qualified young men and women that would like that possibility to come to your department.”

“As things like this come out of our commission,” Thompson added, motioning to the commissioners.

“Excuse me, let me clarify, so you as the president of the union are actively encouraging a situation that would lead to firefighters going from the fire district to the Wichita fire department?” commissioner Richard Ranzau asked.

Ranzau and Thompson had a heated exchange as Ranzau repeated the question.

“Now we have union leadership admitting that they’re actively working with leadership of another union to do things that would bring harm to the district,” Ranzau said later.

‘Significant financial issues’

Ranzau said the fire district is headed toward insolvency and needs to be managed in a fiscally responsible way.

“Regardless of what contract we come up with …we have significant financial issues at the fire district,” Ranzau said. “And we’re going to have to address them sometime.”

Commissioner Tim Norton voted against the contract. “We’ve invested in great equipment and training. And now it’s time to discuss personnel. It’s critical,” he said.

Thompson said union leaders were talking with the union’s national office about whether the contract, with its two-year length and additional provisions, violated public employment law.

“This … gives no public employers the reason to negotiate on a fair basis with their employee unions,” he said.

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar