The city's Personnel Board unanimously approved a tentative labor agreement between the city and its firefighters union Thursday, as candidates for Omaha mayor weighed in on the proposed deal.
Businessman Dave Nabity and former City Councilman Dan Welch have attacked what they say are overly generous or wasteful provisions in the tentative deal.
Councilwoman Jean Stothert, who is also running for mayor, helped broker the proposed contract.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, another mayoral candidate, said the city should approve the deal but also revive an independent commission to examine further pension reforms and address separate concerns with firefighter staffing.
The fire contract “is going to be a major issue” in the mayoral campaign, Welch said during a Republican luncheon Wednesday.
“The new contract, despite what some are saying, is not a good contract,” he said. “The new contract continues the problems we've had in the past. It puts off tough decisions for the union into the future, and we give up the goodies today.”
Nabity, also a Republican, said the agreement reached by a group of City Council members [--] including Stothert would eliminate the city's ability to determine Fire Department staffing.
Mayor Jim Suttle's office said it was still reviewing the overall financial implications of the proposed agreement. A final vote on the deal will come from the City Council next month.
Ashford, Nabity, Stothert and Welch will face Suttle in next April's mayoral primary. The election is officially nonpartisan.
Supporters of the deal who testified before the Personnel Board on Thursday said ratifying the deal would serve the city's best interests.
“With respect to the specifics of this agreement, obviously there are areas which our membership is more fond of than others,” said fire union President Steve LeClair, in his first public comments about the deal.
Mark McQueen, the Baird Holm attorney who led the city's side of the negotiations, said the deal required concessions from both sides.
“That agreement was made possible by some very difficult decisions that the Fire Department had to make, the leadership of the union had to make and the firefighters had to make,” he said. “The City Council also had to make some very, very difficult decisions. That's the nature of negotiations.”
The pending deal, supporters say, would save the city's police and fire pension fund $822 million over 50 years. Effective until 2014, the deal would grant an average 1.6 percent wage increase per year going forward. Firefighters would pay a larger share of their health care and pension costs, though they would keep better prescription drug coverage. New hires would get lower pension benefits and have to work longer to draw full retirement benefits.
Ashford said he believes an independent group should look for additional future reforms to the pension system.
“We have to be realistic that the council has done the best they can do,” he said.
Welch said the proposed deal still does not go far enough to reform the pension system or save taxpayer dollars: “We all appreciate what police officers and firefighters do, but at the same time it simply has to be affordable for the people of Omaha, and right now it's not. We need reform and we need it right now, and the city's in trouble if we don't get it right now.”
Nabity's criticism is largely directed toward the contract's staffing provisions.
The deal carries over language from a rejected union deal with Suttle's administration that would grant the city “discretion” to determine department staffing. But Nabity points to other language that says the number of Fire Department positions filled upon the agreement's approval couldn't be subject to layoffs throughout the contract.
Those provisions would prevent the mayor and fire leadership from laying off firefighters to save money, Nabity said, because the contract language allows for staffing reductions only linked to attrition.
“It is a major mistake on the part of the City Council to put this language back in,” Nabity said. “It makes no sense to the taxpayers of the city of Omaha.”
McQueen, during his testimony, said the department's latest class of firefighters has simply brought the department to an adequate staffing level.
“The notion that some commitment not to lay off employees is an oversight or some type of mistake for the next two years, in my mind, misses the point,” he said. “The question is, are we going to have enough firefighters to adequately staff the department over the next two years.”
The deal also would preserve minimum staffing requirements on fire equipment [--] the “four men on a truck” issue though the agreement would expand some exceptions to that court-ordered rule.
Welch said such staffing levels on city trucks are unnecessary. He said cities across the country are effectively fighting fires and providing medical care with three people per fire truck.
“Despite what you might hear at public forums, additional people aren't going to die if you only have three people on a truck,” Welch said.
Said Ashford: “There's a lot of work left to be done on staffing.”
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