Courier Staff Writer
Ottumwa firefighters want to be able to decide how they distribute pay raises, but the city and the union are at an impasse, so they’re headed to mediation.
Gary Doud, Ottumwa firefighter and president of the Ottumwa Association of Professional Firefighters Local 395, International Association of Firefighters (AFL-CIO-CIC), said negotiations with the city began in October, and while the city and the union haven’t reached an agreement yet, they’re close.
The city and the union will head to a mediation hearing on Dec. 19 with a federal mediator, who will act as a neutral third party to try to settle negotiations.
“The firefighters have told the city they will agree to all the points in the city’s three-year proposal, including a big increase in health insurance costs and a 2 percent pay increase, if the firefighters can apply the 2 percent on a ‘sliding scale’ vs. across the board,” Doud said.
City Attorney Joni Keith said it would be inappropriate for her to remark on the issue other than to say that a mediation is occurring next week and the contracts with library, municipal, police and public works have all been finalized at the aforementioned 2 percent base salary increase per year.
“All of the city bargaining unit contracts are settled, and they’re all at 2 percent per year,” Keith said. “We offered the same thing to the fire department.”
The city is offering a 2 percent pay increase across the board, but the firefighters would like to be able to distribute pay raises where they feel is necessary on a sliding scale, meaning raises would depend on job description, rank and education.
Ottumwa firefighters start out at a 4.1 percent higher salary than firefighters at comparable departments, Doud said, such as in Marshalltown and Muscatine.
But as an Ottumwa firefighter increases in rank, the pay raise does not match that of comparable cities, he said, and by the firefighter’s fifth year, when they reach first-class firefighter status, they are making 8.5 percent less than what firefighters of similar ranks in comparable cities are making.
“We want to bridge that gap,” Doud said.
For example, Doud said the Ottumwa Police Department uses a sliding scale in determining pay raises.
“I can’t get into details other than to say what was done with the police is very appropriate under the circumstances, and we don’t have the same circumstances with the fire department,” Keith said.
Doud said the sliding scale option is the biggest hurdle for the firefighters.
He said it would cost the city no more than the 2 percent “across the board” option they’re offering. The fire department would receive the same amount of money, he said. The only difference would be how it’s distributed.
Last year, Local 395 was not interested in a four-year contract because the city’s proposal included increases in health insurance in years three and four.
“The guys said, ‘Why would we want to sign something where our insurance is going to go up?’” Doud said.
Now, they would be willing to accept the health insurance increases as long as they could have the option of the sliding scale.
“We would agree to everything else they had on the original offer if we were given the option of a sliding scale,” he said.
Doud said he does not know why the city refuses to budge.
“We’ve always had issues going back and forth,” Doud said. “Last year we settled with a one-year contract that ends on June 30, 2013.”
If a contract isn’t established from next week’s mediation, the city and the union will head to an arbitration hearing, where the arbitrator will listen to both sides of the table and make a decision, establishing a one-year contract.
“I’ll be the first one to admit, we have a great group of firefighters in our community,” Keith said. “So we’re hoping we’ll get it settled.”