UPDATED: Kalispell, Firefighters Announce Deal Averting Layoffs

By Beacon Staff

Kalispell officials and leaders of the firefighters’ union have reached a deal they said would avert the planned layoffs of seven firefighters.

Kalispell City Manager Jane Howington, Mayor Tammi Fisher and local 547 President Kirk Pederson held a press conference at City Hall Friday morning to announce the agreement.

“The concessions that were made were significant,” Fisher said of the firefighters. “I think it speaks volumes about their character.”

On Thursday, Ricky Walsh, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters 7th District, offered to limit the financial impact of a new labor contract by capping the annual hours firefighters could work and giving city management more control over “Kelly Days.” Walsh confirmed Friday there were no changes in the deal from what he offered the previous day.

Howington said a deal had not yet been signed, but that both sides “agreed in essence” to reopen the contract. One remaining disagreement was the wish by city officials to strip a provision from the firefighters’ employment contract providing a 2.4 percent pay increase in its third year. Though that provision remains, the firefighters agreed to meet and possibly review that stipulation next year should the economic fortunes of Kalispell remain stagnant.

All sides expressed relief that a compromise had finally been reached in the contentious dispute.

ORIGINAL STORY (POSTED THURSDAY):

Kalispell city officials and union leaders are poised to reach a labor agreement that will avert the layoffs of seven firefighters.

The deal could put an end to the stark disagreements between City Manager Jane Howington and leaders of the firefighters’ union that have been playing out publicly the last several weeks over the impact of a new labor contract on Kalispell’s finances.

The local firefighters’ union brought in Ricky Walsh, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters 7th District, Wednesday to discuss with city officials ways to avert the layoffs.

On Thursday afternoon, Walsh presented the city with a proposed change to the labor contract that would limit the hours firefighters can work annually, with the aim of saving Kalispell enough money to retain all 30 members of its Fire Department.

“The savings is coming from the employer actually conveying its desire to not have layoffs and the employee group responding to that desire,” Walsh said.

“It’s a pay cut,” Walsh added. “Instead of a few having a lot, all will have a little.”

Howington, along with City Attorney Charles Harball and Adjutant City Attorney Rich Hickel plan to calculate the offer’s financial impacts, and meet with union leaders Friday morning to negotiate further, and potentially sign an agreement.

Although differences persist – like the city’s desire to strip a provision providing a 2.4 percent salary increase in the third year from the contract – Mayor Tammi Fisher said she urged Howington and Harball to accept the deal.

“I think the firefighters have made some significant concessions and that is reflective of their concerns, not only for maintaining the number of employees in the fire union, but also their concern for public safety,” Fisher said.

Fisher implied an agreement on Friday was likely.

“I will be very happy to congratulate the firefighters and city manager for their hard work on coming to compromise on a solution,” she said.

Doug Schwartz, vice president of Local 547, said the agreement could be a tough sell for his fellow union members, who will almost certainly earn less when forced to work fewer hours.

“Membership’s giving up an awful lot,” Schwartz said. “It’s a pretty stiff deal for some of our guys.”

Howington notified the union April 5 she intended to lay off seven firefighters to account for the anticipated cost of $690,000 over three years from a new labor contract awarded to firefighters by an independent arbitrator in February. Three of those seven positions were funded by a federal grant Kalispell is obligated to give up if it lays off firefighters.

The firefighters argued Howington’s calculations vastly overestimated the cost of the contract. But Howington maintained that because the contract limited city management’s control over the hours firefighters worked, she had to budget for the maximum annual hours possible.

A key point of contention during contract negotiations and the ensuing dispute has been the cost of “Kelly Work Days,” which are days off that firefighters can volunteer to work for straight pay, known as a “Kelly Work Back.”

Firefighters get 13 Kelly Days annually, and under the deal Walsh offered Thursday, they will no longer be able to work on those days, essentially turning them into furlough days. Firefighters will also have their workweeks reduced from 56 hours to 50 hours.

“It gives the management more control of Kelly Days,” Walsh said. “We’ve eliminated that projected deficit in the Fire Department budget.”

Howington has previously estimated the provision for Kelly Days in the new labor contract could cost Kalispell as much as $170,000.

The savings, according to Walsh, should allow for the seven firefighters to remain on the force, describing his offer as, “something they can live with until we weather this recession storm.”

The Beacon will update this story Friday with new developments.

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