The Omaha City Council is set to approve a contract with Omaha's fire management association for the first time in five years.
The agreement — which will cover the city's fire chief and three assistant chiefs — reduces health benefits, increases the retirement age and calls for aggressive increases in pension contributions through 2014, when the contract expires.
But it also includes significant raises for the four managers, including an increase in a type of pay that rewards long service with the city.
Councilwoman Jean Stothert, who heads the council's labor negotiations committee, said the contract achieves her goals. Managers will contribute 17.23 percent of pay to their pensions by 2014, up from 15.45 percent.
While incumbent managers still will be able to retire at 45, future managers will have to work until they are 55 to get full benefits. The contract also reduces the maximum payout for future managers from 75 percent to 65 percent of pay, and dramatically reduces the types of pay that will count toward pension earnings.
They will also move to the city's less-generous health care plan, which will increase the managers' premium from zero to 7 percent.
But Stothert concedes there are areas that don't go far enough.
“Would we have liked to get more?” she asked. “Yeah.”
Managers will get raises beyond those awarded by the state's labor court. Back wages for the chief in 2010, for instance, increase from the $128,000 ordered by Nebraska's Commission of Industrial Relations to the $136,000 negotiated in the contract.
Fire managers will receive salary increases of 2.5 percent for 2012, 1.75 percent for 2013 and 2.9 percent for 2014.
The raises will add to existing red ink: The fire department is $4.2 million over budget this year.
Mark McQueen, who was hired by the City Council to lead negotiations with unionized city employees, said the raises were designed to mirror those awarded to police management in a contract approved last year.
Further, he said, raises were necessary to get the concessions on benefits that the council wanted.
“There's an argument they would have fared worse at the CIR (Commission of Industrial Relations) than they did with this contract, in terms of base pay,” he said. “But this group would not have made the concessions they made with pensions and health insurance without getting something in return.”
The contract also reconfigures pay to reward employees for years of service. Under the current contract, managers are paid a flat rate depending on how long they've been in the department. Managers are paid anywhere from $56 to $150 extra every two weeks, depending on how long they have been with the city.
The contract calls for payments based on a percentage of base pay, from 3.25 percent to 3.75 percent.
Fire Chief Mike McDonnell has said the manager's association is pleased with the outcome of the negotiations and has thanked the city for its willingness “to find a solution to what has been a long and difficult process.”
The fire management contract is the second McQueen has negotiated since he was retained by the City Council.
The full firefighters union also has gone without a contract since 2007, when its last deal expired. A proposed contract with the union last year led the City Council to take over contract negotiations from the Mayor's Office.
Council members hope a contract with fire managers will pave the way for an agreement with the fire union.
“If you look at it in the context of the city as a whole, it's extremely important,” McQueen said. “These individuals are the leaders of the fire department, former union officers.”
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