Everett mayor’s race brings up firefighters’ old labor disputes

EVERETT — Firefighting is a vital public service, and Everett’s city budget reflects that.

The city expects to spend $131.7 million this year from the general fund. The Everett Fire Department is budgeted at $29.7 million. That is sourced from the general fund except for $8.5 million from the emergency medical services levy.

Not counting the levy, spending on firefighters accounts for about one in six general fund dollars.

Their union, Local 46, long has been a political force in Snohomish County. Its interest in the Everett mayor’s race isn’t a new development.

There is history there, and it’s going to come up again.

What has happened lately?

Local 46 endorsed candidate Brian Sullivan before three others entered the mayor’s race. The firefighters had made clear they weren’t happy with the current city administration, led by Mayor Ray Stephanson. Union President Paul Gagnon has said the plan was to raise money against Stephanson. The mayor decided not to seek a fourth term.

Were there problems before?

The biggest beefs between the city and the union have been about benefits and staffing levels, which some link to safety. Local 46 represents about 165 firefighters and paramedics. It says more are needed. There also was a lengthy dispute over whether firefighters should contribute to the costs of their medical coverage. At the time, taxpayers picked up the entire bill. The city wanted firefighters to pay 10 percent, which is the case for most of its employees. Arbitration, a formal process where a neutral party is given authority to resolve a dispute, determined firefighters would pay 5 percent.

What about the fire chief?

Murray Gordon was fire chief from 2001 until January. He clashed with the union and in 2012 was the subject of a no-confidence vote. After a fatal fire in December 2015, people from within the fire department sent allegations that Gordon was intoxicated at the scene to the news media. The city later said an investigation cleared Gordon.

Separately, after that same blaze, firefighters gave interviews and made statements in public meetings about staffing.

Eric Hicks was named Gordon’s successor after retirement. Hicks left four months later for a job in south King County. He said his departure was untimely when “our department is beginning to turn around.”

Stephanson has appointed an interim chief, Timothy Key, but Everett is getting a new mayor in 2018. New mayors often choose their own department heads. Rumors have been flying about who might be in touch with Sullivan about those jobs.

Sullivan says he hasn’t made any promises.

What was the Fitch study?

The city paid the Fitch and Associates consulting firm $66,400 to study the fire department. The report was shared in summer 2015. It suggested closing fire stations, reducing the number of firefighters and reworking their schedules. Fitch claimed those changes could save more than $8 million a year.

The union said the study was “rigged” to give the city leverage in labor negotiations. Since then, not much has happened. Most of the Fitch suggestions aren’t possible unless they are negotiated into the union’s contract.

What’s going on with the contract?

Negotiations between the city and the firefighters union have come to an impasse on the last two contracts. Each contract usually covers three years.

Arbitration is expensive and time-consuming for both sides. Firefighters don’t strike.

On six occasions since 2010, the city and the union have gone into either arbitration or hearings before the Public Employment Relations Commission, a state labor-management agency. In four cases, the city won. In the other two matters, an arbitrator helped settle contract disagreements.

One of those situations is fresh.

It started in 2015, when the city filed an allegation of unfair labor practice with the state. The city and the union could not agree on whether the city should be allowed to set minimum firefighter staffing levels. That was the only remaining piece of the contract for 2015-2017. The rest was resolved in arbitration.

Since the 1970s, the contract has set minimum around-the-clock staffing at 25. The union says the actual number tends to run higher. It is seeking an increase to 35.

Staffing costs money: The 2017 base pay for an Everett firefighter starts at $57,120. For a firefighter-paramedic, it starts at $93,744.

In March 2017, the state’s hearing examiner ruled in the city’s favor. Firefighters’ concerns about work hours and conditions were outweighed by the city’s “management prerogative,” the document says.

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts. More emergency calls mean they have less time to train, write reports, exercise, eat and sleep. It also means additional exposure to hazards and trauma. The union says that pattern is not sustainable for the safety of the firefighters and the people they serve.

The examiner said the union did not “sufficiently demonstrate a direct relationship between those safety interests and shift staffing levels.”

The union disagrees. “We’re absolutely appealing,” Gagnon said.

Meanwhile, negotiations are scheduled for July on the next contract, which would start in 2018.

What is the future of the fire service?

Local government expenses continue to grow, and tax increases carry legal and political limitations. Today’s employees, including firefighters, expect quality benefits along with wages that reflect the cost of living.

Public safety remains the largest portion of the budget for local cities and counties. Fire departments are finding it necessary to share resources, and conversations often snag on local control.

More people are moving here, and the population is getting older. Limited access to health care can turn 911 into a stopgap, adding to the pressures on the EMS system.

The city of Everett, the firefighters union and many others are paying attention to what comes next.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rikkiking.

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