Early this month, Clearwater city administration decided to go to impasse with the firefighters' union in order to resolve a new one-year contract. For our part, we will continue to negotiate in good faith to resolve outstanding issues as the process for resolving the impasse proceeds.
Everyone recognizes and appreciates the importance of public safety and our public safety personnel. In recognition of their service, they receive benefits not afforded the average worker, public or private. These have been negotiated through past contracts and represent a significant expense to our taxpayers over time.
Last year, the average annual compensation was $49,000 for a Clearwater firefighter and $76,000 for a lieutenant. In addition to their regular compensation and benefits, our firefighters receive:
• Automatic 5 percent annual "step" pay raises during their first five years of service, and 2.5 percent raises every other year for the next 12 years in addition to any negotiated "general wage increase." The step increases alone equate to a 2.5 percent annual wage increase over a 20-year career.
• A $1,000 annual allowance for uniforms and replacement of personal items.
• A lump sum payment of at least $100,000 at the time of retirement from a state supplemental pension program.
• After 20 years of service, a pension equal to 55 percent of their salary, with annual cost of living adjustments for life.
• Four floating holidays that can be converted to a cash payment if not used by the end of each year.
The city is obligated to continue providing these benefits and honoring the conditions of the currently expired contract while the collective bargaining process continues.
While it's true that our professional city staff as well as office workers, treatment plant operators, mechanics and other line workers received raises of about 4 percent this year, they do not receive automatic "step" raises, supplementary pensions or some of the other benefits afforded to our public safety personnel.
We recognize the unique working conditions and 24-hour schedule our firefighters maintain. That's why they work roughly nine shifts each month and are given appropriate down time during work shifts to sleep, relax, study, exercise and recuperate from the stress of emergency calls.
In addition to the personnel benefits, taxpayers have invested more than $10-million in new facilities, vehicles, personal protective gear and other equipment for our fire and rescue personnel over the last eight years.
In October of 2007, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1158 was offered a contract that included 3 percent annual raises and other concessions in return for agreeing to several clarifications in the contract regarding management rights. That offer was never voted on by the union, and in February it was rescinded due to changing economic conditions.
If you look closely at the current contract issues, almost every union demand would result in greater expense to our taxpayers while limiting the city's ability to effectively manage the personnel and finances of the department. Among other demands, they want:
• An extended (two-hour) lunch break and no work (other than regular calls) on their scheduled shift during weekends, holidays or any day after 5 p.m. They have also proposed to limit night training and drills to six hours per year.
• Extra pay if they are asked to temporarily fill in for a lower job classification.
• To be paid overtime if they are called in to participate in training, meetings or events (even if their accumulated hours don't meet the federal requirements for overtime pay).
• Individual authority over what station they are assigned to. (Note that our busiest station has 19 calls per shift, our slowest has 2.5 per shift.)
You can see copies of the current proposals online at myclearwater.com. You can also contact our Human Resources Department for more details.
Clearwater has a truly professional Fire and Rescue Department, and I remain confident that both sides will be able to agree on a contract that reflects the best interests of everyone involved, including our taxpayers. Our citizens should expect no less.
Bill Horne is the Clearwater city manager.