Kalispell notified the firefighters’ union Tuesday that seven of their members would be laid off in May due to the impacts of a new employment contract.
“Unfortunately the financial obligations of the city under the terms of the new fire contract cannot be met without a reduction in force in the fire service,” City Manager Jane Howington wrote in a letter to Local 547 IAFF President Kirk Pederson.
In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, union leaders fired back. Flanked by six of the seven young firefighters who received notice of termination, F. Ray Ruffatto, secretary of the union, called Howington a “bean counter from Ohio” who created the budget problem when she, “failed to do her job in the first place during the arbitration.”
It will take longer for ambulance and fire service to respond to the neighborhoods, stores and schools in north Kalispell with the cuts, according to Ruffatto, who went on to call for meetings next week with city officials to negotiate a way to avoid the layoffs.
“Regardless of her callous actions towards the safety of our citizens and the lives and families of these firefighters who have received pink slips, we are here to say, once again, that we are ready to sit down and do what is necessary to ensure the financial health of this city without a single firefighter being tossed out onto the street, and without the safety and lives of our citizens being put at risk with cuts,” Ruffatto said.
The seven firefighters who will lose their jobs are: Brent Councilor, Jacob Felts, Ben Graham, Josiah Mooney, Taylor Zachary, Soren Koetter and Jeremy Grady.
Three of those positions are funded by a federal SAFER grant, and the other four have the least seniority on the force. Of those firefighters present at the news conference Wednesday, their time on the Kalispell Fire Department ranged from seven to 14 months.
Councilor, 26, trained as a firefighter after he was laid off from his construction job in 2009, then was hired to the Kalispell Fire Department the following year.
“I thought this was going to benefit my family,” he said. “This was what I wanted to do for the next 20 years.”
Councilor supports the position the union has taken, and though he’s hopeful his job may be saved, he is also looking out for his wife and two children by trying to plan for what’s next.
“Me and my wife will weigh our options and discuss how to move on with our life,” Councilor said. “I’m always holding out hope but I’m also a man that understands that stuff happens.”
In a later interview Wednesday, Howington said city officials plan to meet with union leaders April 13 to negotiate for up to three days on the impact of the layoffs and the labor contract.
Were the union to reopen portions of the new contract it was awarded by an independent arbitrator in February to further negotiation, Howington said some jobs might be spared. That would include options like freezing their wages, or putting a cap on “Kelly Work Back” days, for example. Kelly Work Backs, where a firefighter can volunteer to work extra days for straight pay, were a key sticking point in negotiations over the contract.
Though he declined to provide specific details on areas where the union might negotiate, Ruffatto said union leaders have alternatives to maintain the department’s current level of force in this fiscal year.
“We’re going to look at all of the options available,” he said. “We need these firefighters to stay here in Kalispell so that we can continue to deliver the excellent customer service that we deliver.”
But Howington said she has maintained throughout the contract negotiations and arbitration hearings that the Fire Department budget is a set amount, using the metaphor of a “pie,” and increasing wages for the existing 30 firefighters would force layoffs.
“We have a pie; you can divide up the pie however you want, but there’s only so much,” Howington said. “That’s part of the reason we wanted to get better control of Kelly Work Backs.”
The disputes between the firefighters’ union and Kalispell over the last several weeks have stemmed from the city’s estimate of the contract’s financial impacts – $690,000 over the next three years – based on calculations of the annual hours each firefighter works. Howington is budgeting based on an average of 2,834 hours annually, per firefighter. Firefighters calculate that number as lower, at 2,742 hours. She provided a spreadsheet listing the hours firefighters worked last year, which ranged from 2,663 to 3,083.
“At the end of the day the city has the responsibility of budgeting according to these numbers,” Howington said. “We don’t agree with the way that the union is suggesting we do that.”
She added that she hopes the discussions next week can move beyond the difference over hours and onto how the Fire Department will operate in the future, in light of the contract’s impacts. Nor would Howington rule out the possibility of further layoffs in the future.
“There may be a need to make some staffing reductions during the year next year,” she said.
The city council will also analyze the benefits and drawbacks of privatizing the ambulance service later this year, and Fire Chief Dan Diehl will give a presentation on how his department will be organized with seven less firefighters at the next council meeting April 18.
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