City Manager: Layoffs Necessary at Kalispell Fire Department

By Beacon Staff

City Manager Jane Howington intends to lay off Kalispell firefighters and potentially privatize the ambulance service as a way to make up for the added costs of a recent contract arbitration decision that sided with the firefighters’ union.

“I hate to just paint a doom and gloom picture, but there are difficult decisions in how to deal with the impact of the arbitrator’s decision,” she told city council members Monday. “So I’m looking at downsizing and outsourcing and changing the way we do business for our fire and our EMS services.”

The Kalispell City Council unanimously approved a collective bargaining agreement Monday, signed by the leadership of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 547, executing the decision an arbitrator awarded the union Feb. 22, following a two-year impasse.

Immediately following the vote, Howington told the council the new firefighters’ contract would cost the city an additional $690,000, necessitating either layoffs and other restructuring at the Fire Department, or deep cuts and layoffs elsewhere in Kalispell city government.

“Whether or not someone agrees with my numbers or disagrees with my numbers, those are the numbers I have to operate on,” Howington said. “It’s pretty obvious that there isn’t money in there to carry any major increases.”

In a statement released Tuesday, firefighters questioned how a professional arbitrator could have imposed such requirements on Kalispell that layoffs would be necessary, when arbitrators are required by state law to consider the ability of a public employer to pay when rendering a decision.

“In light of the challenging economy, the firefighters did not, and would not have taken any issue to arbitration that would create an additional burden to the public,” the firefighters’ union statement said. “It is irrational to assume that a reasonable and impartial arbitrator would choose a proposal that would cause such a drastic alteration to public safety.”

“The firefighters have repeatedly requested that the city provide a clear and comprehensible breakdown of how the city is calculating the monetary impacts of the arbitrator’s decision. To this point, the city has not provided this information,” the statement added.

In explaining Kalispell’s inability to pay for the new firefighters’ contract, Howington painted a bleak picture of the city’s finances, and that of the Fire Department. She noted that the Fire Department’s budget is, “about $40,000 in arrears right now and we have about a quarter of the (fiscal) year left.”

Her calculations also include the cost of the provision in the contract for “Kelly Work Back days,” which are when firefighters can volunteer to work extra days for straight pay. A major reason contract negotiations went on for years, Howington said, was city management’s desire for control over Kelly Work Backs, which she has previously said could cost Kalispell as much as $170,000.

Additionally, the Montana Legislature is moving to freeze the entitlement payment formula for municipal governments, where it usually pays increases of 3 to 4 percent, leaving Kalispell without $130,000-$150,000 it can usually budget for the general fund, Howington said. And new population numbers from the U.S. Census showing growth in Kalispell over the last decade could increase the city’s share of payment toward the construction of the new county 911 Center by $70,000-$78,000.

Health care costs for public employees, she added, are increasing by 15 percent.

Completely eliminating the departments of city manager, finance director, clerk and more would still not make up for the additional cost of the firefighters’ contract, Howington said, going on to suggest that Kalispell is in a better position to handle a reduced firefighting force without sacrificing public safety due to the city’s improved mutual aid agreements with neighboring Flathead fire departments.

In their Wednesday statement, however, the firefighters’ union pointed out that during contract negotiations both sides agreed on the budgeted amount for firefighter wages.

“This budgeted amount was again confirmed during mediation and through testimony provided by city staff during arbitration. The firefighters worked diligently to ensure that their proposal did not exceed this budget,” the statement said. “In fact, the firefighters’ proposal included a wage freeze for last year and a zero percent increase for next fiscal year.”

The vast difference between the estimated cost impacts of Howington and the firefighters clearly stumped city council members.

“I cannot figure out the bottom line from either system whether or not the Fire Department is living within the budget approved by this council for this fiscal year,” Councilman Bob Hafferman said. “As I look over all of this information I have no idea exactly where we stand but we’ll know pretty soon. The end of the (fiscal) year is almost upon us.”

Mayor Tammi Fisher said she has asked the firefighters whether they would be willing to reopen negotiations, but that she can’t see how Kalispell can meet its obligations under the contract and “maintain the Fire Department at its current level.”

Fisher urged other council members to meet with Howington and – though a council vote is not required – collectively bear the responsibility for any decisions leading to firefighter layoffs.

“I do not want this to be a hill either she or we die on unless we die on it together,” Fisher said. “I would suggest it not be something where we say, ‘That was a city manager decision.’”

“Because it’s an issue of such magnitude, I think the public needs to know how we feel individually and collectively about it,” Fisher added.

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