LETTER: Personal Attacks Won’t Change Budget Reality

By Beacon Staff

The discourse on the firemen issue sank to an all-new low last week with the “press conference” held in the city fire hall. When personal attacks on a fellow city employee (the city manager) become the basis for pleas for job retention, the ability for the public and public officials to separate the facts from the personal attacks becomes difficult. The results from the personal attacks on Jane Howington are becoming clear however; she has been subject to threats against her personal safety and the council has received phone calls from the elderly that now fear that when they call 911 no one will respond. Fear tactics and personal attacks may be the method by which individuals and politicians of the past have attempted to garner votes and sympathy, but this is not how we operate in the city of Kalispell. This council strives to make decisions based upon facts not conjecture, and as public officials we do not condone the use of public facilities as a platform to defame any employee serving the city of Kalispell.

We have a difficult budget cycle facing us in the next few months. We have multiple, significant budgetary liabilities we need to account for. It is a distortion of reality for any one person or group of persons to believe this city is flush with cash to provide raises to its employees in any department. We have laid off 18 employees in multiple departments – excluding the fire and police departments – over the past two years. No employee in the city of Kalispell has had a raise in well over two years. Administration took a voluntary pay freeze two years ago. The AFSCME Union just negotiated its employment contract for the next two years, and in recognition of the economy and the budgetary restrictions on the city of Kalispell, it accepted a contract that does not provide them with raises. Therefore, we are able to maintain the level of staffing within that union. We are currently negotiating with the police union, and if raises are forced in that contract, the city will face tough staffing and budgetary issues in that department. Our reserves, while raised significantly last year, are still approximately half of what they should be in order to secure the long term solvency of the city. We have significant liabilities that threaten the sanctity of our reserves however, and we must account for those liabilities (including bond payments for Old School Station, cuts in state funding allocations, etc.).

Let us be clear, so that the facts are all on the table: the only city employees to get raises this year and for the past two years are the firemen. Based upon the arbitrator’s decision, the firemen will be given raises retroactively for the past two years, for the term of the contract going forward and we will now have firemen that earn more compensation than the fire chief. An independent arbitrator decided that this pay scale is appropriate. This arbitrator also determined that it is appropriate to use the city’s reserves to cover the compensation package for the firemen if necessary. We have the same budget for the firemen this year as we did last year, and we are in the red in the fire department budget with three more pay periods left in the year. It is not possible to squeeze blood out of a turnip. The decision for the firemen is, and has always been: 1) you can have a raise, or 2) you can maintain the level of staffing, but you can’t have both, unless the council decides in its budget process that raiding the reserves is appropriate. As individual public officials, each with a vote, we continue to study this issue and individually will make our respective decisions about how to approach the budget for the fire department and the city as a whole. But collectively, we want to make clear that we have no tolerance for personal attacks upon any city employee, and scare tactics about the provision of emergency services without basis in reality will not be tolerated or condoned.

Mayor Tammi Fisher
Councilman Tim Kluesner
Councilwoman Kari Gabriel
Councilman Duane Larsen
Councilman Wayne Saverud
Councilman Jim Atkinson
Councilman Jeff Zauner

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