Calif. city declares impasse in contract talks with firefighters

The union blasted the city for using what it called an anti-public safety law firm with a financial incentive to drag out negotiations

By Kevin McCallum
The Press Democrat

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Santa Rosa has declared an impasse in its lengthy contract negotiations with the city’s 121 unionized firefighters, saying its last offer is fair and its post-fire budget picture too uncertain to justify more generous raises.

The union on Thursday expressed disappointment at the declaration, and blasted the city for wasting money on what it painted as an anti-public safety outside law firm with a financial incentive to drag out negotiations.

The acrimony was a marked departure from the historically cozy labor relations the city has enjoyed with its firefighters.

The city is offering firefighters — whose salaries averaged $156,000 last year — a two-year deal of 3.5 percent raises each year, a $1,000 signing bonus and other pay enhancements.

“We believe the package is fair and in line with the contract agreements reached with our other labor unions, including the police union who last year agreed to a contract virtually identical to the one offered to the fire union,” Mayor Chris Coursey said in a release. The city noted that it had met with firefighters’ negotiation team 21 times over the past year.

It also pointed out that firefighters enjoy total compensation packages — which include all salary categories as well as health, pension and other benefits — valued at an additional $79,000 per firefighter for total compensation of $235,000.

Union officials called that figure “inflammatory” but did not dispute its accuracy. The union also accused the city of trying to negotiate the contract in the press instead of at the bargaining table.

“Despite our best efforts to keep the talks going, the message is clear that the City would rather spend valuable taxpayer money and resources on impasse proceedings than reach a fair settlement with our firefighters,” Tim Aboudara, president of Firefighters’ Union, Local 1401, said in a statement.

Fire Chief Tony Gossner said he was disappointed by the turn of events and had nothing but respect for his firefighters, but was faced with the financial reality that the city can’t afford to pay them more.

“It’s very frustrating and unfortunate,” Gossner said. “They feel like they deserve more money than the city is willing to offer them, but there is no more money at this point.”

He said the dispute precedes the October wildfires, which devastated large swaths of the city. The city says it had a salary survey of comparable cities that shows its firefighters are fairly compensated. The survey of nine other Bay Area cities showed Santa Rosa firefighters averaged slightly less than other jurisdictions in pension and wages but equal to or slightly more than others’ total compensation packages. The other nine cities were Berkeley, Daly City, Fairfield, Fremont, Hayward, Richmond, San Mateo, Vacaville and Vallejo. Aboudara said the union has a different salary survey that comes to a different conclusion, but declined to share it.

In the past, the city and the union have agreed to conduct a single survey to see how pay and benefits for firefighters stack up against other communities, but this contract marks a departure from that pattern, Aboudara said.

The statement called the city’s law firm, Renne Public Law Group, a “hired gun” that was billing the city “hundreds of thousands of dollars” with “no end in sight.” Aboudara suggested the firm had an incentive “for the process to get drawn out, win or lose.”

Copyright 2018 The Press Democrat

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