After Win Against City, Firefighters Could Face Layoffs

By Beacon Staff

City Manager Jane Howington put Kalispell’s 30 firefighters on notice Tuesday that they could face major ramifications in the form of layoffs following a recent arbitration decision favoring the local firefighters’ union.

“The decision came out and there’s a significant financial impact,” Howington said. “We’re trying to determine how we best can handle this impact.”

The Feb. 22 decision by professional arbitrator James A. Lundberg ruled in favor of the union on 14 points of dispute, settling a years-long impasse over contract negotiations between city officials and the Local 547 chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Issues ranged from pay and benefits packages to the number of clothing articles provided as part of a uniform. But Howington said the fiscal impact to the city from the decision would necessitate “comprehensive” changes to the way in which Kalispell delivers ambulance service and fire protection.

“This means we have to change the model of emergency services – the way we provide emergency services,” she said. “We have to look at figuring out how to consolidate services.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Howington said city staff were still at work determining how much implementation of the contract under the union’s terms could cost Kalispell. In August, the city projected a difference of $300,000-$400,000 between its position and the union’s. Now, she believes the presentation awarded by the arbitrator could be more.

“I would assume it has grown beyond that amount but I don’t know yet,” Howington said.

Impacts to the Kalispell Fire Department could range from layoffs to privatizing the ambulance service to shuttering Fire Station 62 on the city’s north side. Howington said her goal in distributing the notices to firefighters was to let them know the city plans to figure out the impact on the department within the next two months.

“I’m hoping that we won’t take 60 days to come up with that,” she added. “This is playing with people’s lives and livelihoods and that’s not an easy thing to do.”

F. Ray Ruffatto, secretary of the IAFF Local 547, confirmed that Kalispell firefighters were receiving letters Tuesday informing them of the potential for impending layoffs.

“At this point we just need to take that information into consideration,” Ruffatto said. “We’re just hoping that it doesn’t come to pass that they’re going to have to get rid of anybody.”

The decision to take the fire department contract dispute to an arbitrator was reached after city officials and union negotiators determined they could not reach an agreement in August. Arbitration proceedings occurred over a five-day period in January. Prior to Howington’s attempt, interim city manager Myrt Webb had previously put negotiations on hold after his predecessor, Jim Patrick’s move to extend the contract for a year following its termination in June 2008. According to Howington, the arbitrator must side completely with one party in a dispute, and cannot offer compromises of the two positions.

The 80-page arbitration decision itself is in many ways a summary of the issues plaguing Kalispell over the last three years, from plummeting finances to high turnover at the Fire Department.

But Lundberg was highly critical of the city’s rationale for its positions, calling its calculation of hours and wages, “incorrect and incomplete.” He also described the city’s explanation for how it has attempted to improve retention at the fire department, “either not supported by the data or nonsensical.”

Since firefighters do not work a typical workday, determining the annual hours they work is inherently complicated, with the city and union differing on the average number. Additionally, the formation of new ranks, cost-of-living adjustments, adding longevity pay, putting wages in line with Montana cities of similar size and maintaining “Kelly Work Back Days,” all compounded the difference between what the city and union estimated their wage schedule would cost.

Howington said the provision for Kelly Days, where a firefighter can volunteer to work extra days for straight pay, could cost the city as much as $170,000. In her view, the difference between the union and city over budget projections and the cost of wage schedules and benefits were the crux of the dispute.

“There’s always been a difference between the union’s interpretation of the budget numbers and the city’s interpretation of the budget numbers,” Howington said. “We tried to inform them that the numbers they were using were not accurate numbers and they weren’t taking into account some of their benefits.”

“They felt that we were trying to pad our numbers and we weren’t,” she added. “We were trying to be realistic.”

But the arbitrator clearly sided strongly with the union’s wage demands, noting that it proposed no retroactive increase in fiscal year 2010, and is within the city budget for fiscal year 2011. In 2012, the base wage will not increase, though additional longevity pay (aimed at increasing retention) will pay each firefighter an additional $616.86 per year. The union proposes a 2.4 percent base wage increase in 2013, which is equal to economic growth forecasts for Kalispell overall.

“Put simply, Local 547 performed a detailed analysis of its wage offer following Montana’s primary statutory criteria. The City did not,” Lundberg wrote. “The City has been improving its financial position and it is reasonable to expect that the slight improvement in financial position will result in some slight improvement in the wages of the Fire Department where very deep cuts have been made to meet budgetary problems.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.