Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Firefighters' Issue 1 pros and cons outlined at public forum

Posted By on Tue, Mar 19, 2019 at 11:31 AM

click to enlarge Union representative John Roy and Mayor John Suthers faced off on March 18 to debate the pros and cons of Issue 1 to a nearly full room at Penrose Library. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Union representative John Roy and Mayor John Suthers faced off on March 18 to debate the pros and cons of Issue 1 to a nearly full room at Penrose Library.
About 150 people showed up at Penrose Library on March 18 to hear the pros and cons of Issue 1 at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters and Citizens Project.

The ballot measure to be decided by voters in the April 2 city election would give firefighters collective bargaining powers, absent the ability to strike.

Speaking in favor of the issue was John Roy, deputy campaign manager with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 5.

Mayor John Suthers spoke against the measure.

"When you call 911, you expect a fire truck will arrive there quickly," Roy said. "And that's exactly what this is about."

He said under the current system, firefighters don't have much say in allocation of resources to protect their own and the public's safety. He noted that one fire engine over 20 years old developed a leak that poisoned firefighters with exhaust fumes. All recovered.

The incident underscores that city leadership who call the shots lacks continuity. The mayor, the city's chief executive, is elected every four years, and City Council potentially changes membership every two years, he said.

"We don't know who our next mayor or City Council will be," Roy said. "The problem is, we cannot guarantee our next mayor will offer us an opportunity to sit down with him."

The people who use the equipment, Roy said, should have a say in funding that equipment, as well as staffing and training. Compensation also would come into play in collective bargaining, but Roy acknowledged that a series of recent raises has placed firefighters at parity with similar departments — $80,000 a year for most line firefighters.

Still, the Fire Department today has fewer firefighters than it did in 2008, Roy said.

As for arguments against the measure based on the need for a city election should firefighters and the city stalemate, Roy noted a fact-finder would come into play amid such an impasse and of at least 15 cities in Colorado with similar collective bargaining arrangements, none has led to a vote of the people over a contract. [Whichever side refuses to accept the fact-finder's conclusion pays for a special election.]

"If Issue 1 doesn't pass, it could be a detriment to public safety," he said, and noted the city's response time goal of arriving at a scene within 8 minutes 90 percent of the time is twice the recommended standard by the National Fire Protection Association of four minutes.
click to enlarge Mayor Suthers, right, has become the spokesperson for opposition to the firefighter measure.
  • Mayor Suthers, right, has become the spokesperson for opposition to the firefighter measure.
Suthers argued that if firefighters receive collective bargaining powers, other city employees will also seek such authority, throwing the city's finances into chaos.

Besides, he added, firefighters already have a seat at the table. "Our city has been good to firefighters," he said, noting pay scales have reached competitive market levels and firefighters are given a pension for life.

He also noted when he met with Local 5 officials four years ago, they told him collective bargaining "is not our thing." Since then, the city has purchased several new fire apparatus, raised salaries and funded additional positions.

"If you think this doesn't have a downside, look around the country," Suthers said, pointing to departments who face layoffs in order to fund union demands.

Firefighters could seek a multi-year contract, which would put the city in a dicey spot, he said. Since the city relies so heavily on sales tax revenue, an economic downturn can have significant impact on the city budget in short order.

"If we're locked in [on a firefighter contract] and the economy does tank, everybody else is going to pay out the wazoo on that," Suthers said, meaning money to fulfill the contract would shortchange other departments' needs.

Suthers said he also fears that collective bargaining will translate into a battle between lawyers for the city and for the union, rather than "face time" between himself and firefighters, who he said are now "very well represented" on compensation and benefit committees within the city.

Suthers defended the Fire Department's response time record, saying the insurance rating for the city, which dictates how much people pay for property insurance, indicates response times are "quite good." [The Indy recently reported that through October 2018, the most recent data available at the time of our report, the department fell short of its response time goals in eight of nine zones.]

The city election, where voters also will elect a mayor and three at-large City Council members, is being conducted entirely by mail. For information, go to this link

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