Pocatello firefighters, city reach agreement on three-year contract
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POCATELLO — After nearly three months at the negotiation table, the city of Pocatello and Pocatello Firefighters Union have reached an agreement.
Many of the issues on the negotiation table were ironed out without any problems. However, the issue of compensation packages for firefighters has been a contentious issue that up until Tuesday’s negotiation meeting had been at a near impasse.
Pocatello firefighters entered negotiations with an average salary around 15% less than that of their counterparts in comparable cities, according to union president Andy Moldenhauer. Those comparisons include Caldwell, Chubbuck, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls and Twin Falls, the cities used by Pocatello as comparisons during recent budget meetings.
The offer proposed by the city and accepted by the union Tuesday would give all firefighters a 9% wage increase over the three-year life of the agreement — 2.5% in year one, 3% in year two and 3.5% in year three.
All that is left now is for contracts to be drawn up, signed and ratified, Moldenhauer told EastIdahoNews.com, avoiding a lengthy fact-finding arbitration process that would have pulled members of the fire department further from their duties.
“This definitely eliminates a distraction,” he said. “Obviously this year is shaping up to be a bad fire year, so it’s good that we’re able to get back to focusing. … It’s just nice to have this off our shoulders.”
The concern of the city entering negotiations was the fact that the firefighters were the city’s only employees who did not pay into their medical benefits, Pocatello Human Resource Department Head Heather Buchanan told EastIdahoNews.com prior to reaching Tuesday’s agreement.
“They currently have a lower deductible than all other city employees and do not pay any monthly premiums, which means they contribute nothing toward their medical benefits,” Buchanan said.
“The city’s viewpoint on compensation is it’s all-encompassing,” she added. “Pay, benefits, all of that is items we have to consider and cost out when building a budget. We must work within the constraints of our tax base, and we have to be very aware of the tax burden we’re passing on to citizens.”
A previous offer from the city provided firefighters with the same 9% wage increase over three years, but would have had them paying into their health insurance policies. And at the rate the city was asking, Moldenhauer said, it would have been a net loss in take-home pay.
“On my wish list, we would be caught up to where we were being paid comparably to what other departments are doing,” the union president said prior to reaching the agreement Tuesday. “But we can’t do that at the expense of benefits. We can’t go backwards, we’re already considerably underpaid, compared to other departments in the state, and we can’t take less money.”
Tuesday’s offer includes the city’s continued coverage of insurance premiums, but with a caveat. Premium increases covered by the city will be capped at 6.24%, with the firefighters to cover all premium differences beyond that cap.
Prior to offering and accepting a compensation package, the two sides made some changes that both seemed pleased with.
Included in the contract, the Pocatello Fire Department will undergo a schedule change, firefighters will now work 48 straight hours followed by 96 off-duty.
The city also successfully negotiated the position of the department’s emergency vehicle technician into an eventual city position.
For the past 25 years, Pocatello FD has employed its own certified technician, Moldenhauer said, responsible for all service and maintenance of emergency vehicles. Once the current technician retires, that position will be filled by the city’s fleet maintenance service.
Both sides were able to claim small victories during negotiations, but the greatest victory, according to Moldenhauer, was that a deal was met prior to Sept. 30 — the final day of the current contract.
Had negotiations continued beyond that date, a fact-finding arbitration process would have been incurred, including state involvement.
With arbitration hearings, both sides present information as to why they deserve whatever it is they are requesting, or why the other side does not. That process can become pretentious, creating voids to be overcome in future contract negotiations, Moldenhauer said.
“Going in to (the next) contract negotiations in three years, we’ll probably be in the same position,” he said. … “I don’t see very much good coming out of it had we gone through the fact-finding process.”
But that process has been avoided, as has any other potential fallout.
The new deal, if and when it is signed, will take effect Oct. 1.