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Crying Fire 

Both sides on 2B debate say their opponents are blowing smoke

During a break from his shift as a motorcycle cop on the city's north end, patrolman Roger Vargason uses a check from his lunch meal to make a point about Issue 2B, one of this fall's most hotly debated ballot measures.

If approved, Issue 2B would give police and fire personnel the power to negotiate with the city as a group for a salary contract -- a controversial provision in a community that's long been skeptical of organized labor.

"Basically, we're just looking for something on paper, something in writing," Vargason said, holding up the green slip of paper. "In the past, the City Council has not kept its word when it comes to pay issues."

The president of the Public Safety Association, one of two local groups that represent police personnel, Vargason said police officers are not looking to create a union.

Because Colorado law prohibits public-safety workers from striking, he said fear of a unionized police force is unrealistic. Rather, he said, Issue 2B is simply about having a place at the negotiating table when pay issues are discussed.

It's not even strictly about money, he said.

"This doesn't come down to getting a raise next year or not," he said. "It's about being promised something, and then, half way through, things change. Then they take away [the pay increases] and we have no power to do anything about it."

Collective bargaining would change that, he said, because if the city and its public-safety workers cannot reach a compromise, Issue 2B would require that a neutral arbitrator, picked by both sides, would settle the dispute.

Because the arbitrator can only choose either the city's pay proposal or the proposal put forward by police and fire negotiators, the process would encourage both sides to be reasonable, said R.C. Smith, a battalion chief with the Colorado Springs fire department.

"Neither side will come in with something outrageous, because they know that then the arbitrator would never accept their proposal," said Smith, who also serves as vice president of the Colorado Springs Professional Fire fighters Association.

"So no one's going to come in asking for an 8-percent raise. That would be crazy," he said. "Likewise, the city isn't going to come in with a ridiculously poor offer either."

But it's the provision for an arbitrator that critics of 2B have latched on to as exactly the reason why the measure should be defeated.

"If this initiative is successful, your elected officials will lose control of over 33 percent of the budget and give it to an outsider who is not elected and not accountable to the people of Colorado Springs," wrote Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, in official comments included in the city's pre-election voter mailing.

Still other opponents, such as Bob Gardner, treasurer of the Colorado Springs Safety Association, the main group opposing the ballot measure, say the measure would give too much power to organizations that represent cops and fire personnel.

"It's a political choice," said Gardner, a local lawyer and former chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party. "Do we want to empower public-safety personnel over every other item in the city budget?"

To Gardner, the answer is a clear no.

Collective bargaining, he contends, is simply another way of saying union. As soon as collective bargaining is approved, police and fire groups would essentially have to form unions to vote on approving budget proposals.

Though they could not strike, police and fire groups could force the city to accept salary demands that would require either cuts in other programs or tax increases, Gardner further claimed.

And once unions were in place, critics such as Gardner say, dispute and arbitration would become the norm, as police and fire groups push for their own interests.


Crying fire

But police and fire personnel say the critics are crying "fire."

If 2B passes, police and fire personnel would simply continue to belong to the same local associations that they now support. The union word is a smokescreen designed to scare voters into rejecting the deal, they said.

In Colorado, for example, a total of 12 fire departments -- ranging from the eight-member Leadville corps to the 855-member Denver department -- have collective bargaining power. Four of those have provisions for binding arbitration.

Roughly 75 percent of the state's firefighters -- 1,995 firefighters, out of a state total of 2,600 personnel -- are covered by collective bargaining.

With so many firefighters covered, proponents of 2B argue that if all the scary stories about collective bargaining were true, then the state would be experiencing yearly crises over out-of-whack public-safety budgets.

Even Gardner conceded he could not name any Colorado fire department that was regularly relying on arbitration to settle disputes.

To R.C. Smith, who's representing firefighters on the issue, the debate has become overblown. "The ballot measure requires that the arbitrator take into account what the city can pay," said Smith. "So the city is not going to be forced into some crisis -- that's assuming we even end up in arbitration."


Burning Money

Both sides are quick to emphasize the debate is not over money. Even critics say they support firefighter salary demands; they just don't like the method proposed in 2B.

Still, money is clearly the issue driving the debate.

Police and fire personnel have received some modest wage boosts in recent years, but those hikes have not kept local public-safety workers from slipping even farther behind their peers in other Front Range cities.

In 1993, for example, local public-safety-worker salaries were in the 75th percentile for Front Range cities -- well above average according to public-safety advocates. Now they are below average, in the 45th percentile. (Many of the cities used for comparison purposes, however, are much smaller than Colorado Springs.)

Last year, the city began a multi-year attempt to bring police and fire salaries to market rate by the year 2000 with modest base salary increases, cost-of-living adjustments and a pay-for-performance bonuses.

But because police and fire personnel salaries were frozen in 1996 (followed in 1997 with only cost of living adjustments), public safety advocates say their rank-and-file still won't catch up with their peers by 2000.

Getting more information about the city's compensation plan was difficult, however, since city financial planners (finance planning manager Mike Anderson and financial analyst Lisa Bigelow) refused to be interviewed for this story.

But because the past increases have not kept pace with other departments, the city is losing both new recruits and experienced cops to cities such as Aurora, said Derek Graham, a homicide detective who also serves as president of the Police Protective Association, another group that represents police officers.

"We're losing good officers," said Graham. "We lose about five to 10 officers a year. That may not seem like a lot in a department of 525, but you can't necessarily replace those people right away ... so you end up with less officers on the street."

The loss can't just be counted in numbers, he said. "If we lose someone who's midway through their career, a 16-year veteran, then we lose a ton of experience and training that is very difficult to replace," Graham said.

Opponents of 2B note, however, that the city is working on bringing local public-safety workers up closer to market rate. In the next five years, says Gardner, the city has committed to giving public-safety workers a total of 20 percent in salary and benefits increases.

But groups representing public-safety workers counter that much of the proposed increases would take the form of "pay for performance" bonuses that do not go to all public-safety workers.

Moreover, it's an extremely unpopular program among rank and file, according to the public-safety groups. The program is flawed, says the PPA's Graham, because it rewards individual performance in jobs that rely heavily on teamwork.

"It's very divisive because you have people on the same shift competing with each other," Graham said. "And it's not very fair because even if you reward on a team basis, then the individual is punished if his shift happens to not perform."

Proponents of pay-for-performance say the program works, because it benefits those who work hard for taxpayers. Still, many city departments are now revamping their pay-for-performance regimes to help counter some of these criticisms.

In any event, police and fire personnel note that they have no guarantee that the proposed raises will, in fact, go through -- a key reason why they'd like to negotiate collectively for yearly contracts.

While public-safety workers have lost trust in promises from City Council, battalion chief Smith notes that the critics appear not to trust cops and firefighters to do the right thing.

"It's funny. People trust us with their spouses, their children's lives. If we tell someone we have to cut a hole in their roof, they say, 'OK, go ahead.' Why wouldn't they trust us to be reasonable people at the bargaining table?"

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