Meeting Between Firefighters, City Officials Unlikely to Avert Layoffs

By Beacon Staff

A meeting Wednesday between Kalispell firefighters and city officials appeared to do little to avert impending layoffs at the Fire Department, and underscored the differences between the two sides regarding the impact a new employment contract will have on city finances.

“I don’t think that layoffs are an option; there will be layoffs,” City Manager Jane Howington told leaders of the firefighters’ union during the hour-long meeting. “It’s the only way that we can make the books balance.”

Howington has said previously the new firefighter contract could cost Kalispell an additional $690,000. And paying the firefighters the $104,000 in back pay they won in the arbitration decision puts the department $15,000 in the red for the 2011 fiscal year.

Firefighters, meanwhile, remain puzzled by how city officials calculated the financial impact of a labor agreement their union won in a Feb. 22 arbitration decision such that layoffs are necessitated.

“We still remain confused on the city’s need to lay off firefighters to remedy the budget for this fiscal year,” Doug Schwartz, vice president of Local 547, said.

In discussions, Kirk Pederson, president of the union, estimated the number of firefighter jobs on the chopping block could be as high as 15 – roughly half of the 30-person force, should the ambulance service be privatized and the northern fire station be shuttered.

The difference between the firefighters’ cost estimate, and the estimate calculated by city officials appears to stem from the complex formula determining the number of hours each firefighter works on an annual basis. Howington argued forcefully that because the city lost concessions on controlling certain aspects of working hours – including overtime, retroactive payments and Kelly Work Back days – that she must budget for the maximum possible amount each firefighter could work.

For that reason, Howington is budgeting for each firefighter to work 2,834 hours in the next fiscal year, while firefighters estimate they will work 2,742 hours.

“It’s a difference of about 92 hours per person, per year,” Schwartz said, “which is pretty substantial.”

But Howington said she must also account for Kelly Work Backs, where a firefighter can volunteer to work extra days for straight pay. The Kelly Work Backs were a major crux in contract negotiations, and account for much of the discrepancy in the cost of the contract between city officials and the firefighters.

“If there was another cap on Kelly Work Backs, we wouldn’t have to fund the maximum liability,” she said.

“I believe that our systems are very well proven, and even if you don’t agree with our numbers, they’re the way that I have to implement the budget,” Howington added. “If my numbers are wrong, the council’s going to hold me accountable for it.”

At times, the discussion grew heated.

“You’re going to portray the budget as an impact greater than it really is,” Schwartz said, “as a justification for laying off firefighters.”

“Why would I do that?” Howington replied. “This is tearing my heart out.”

“Why would I go to ends to try to just lay off firefighters?” she added. “We were trying to keep from laying people off.”

As the meeting drew to a close, Howington urged the union leaders to meet with Adjutant City Attorney Rich Hickel to compare calculations and attempt to understand how the opposing sides arrived at such different cost estimates. But the firefighters remain concerned about when, and if, notice of layoffs may begin.

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