The Omaha City Council was both praised and criticized Tuesday for its work on a fire union contract that will go to a vote next week.
In a public hearing on the tentative agreement, the council heard from four supporters and four opponents. Most said they had mixed feelings about the long-delayed contract, which includes an average wage increase of 1.6 percent per year and is projected to save Omaha's police and fire pension fund $822 million over the next 50 years.
Supporters included two members of the group Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom and a representative from the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Joseph Young, the chamber's director of public policy, said his group is “encouraged” that the city and the union were able to curtail what could have continued to be a long, drawn-out debate.
“This contract, from our perspective, is not a perfect contract,” he said. “We continue to see areas that could hurt the city's financial position. ... But we will say this is a tentative good step.”
Critics, however, cautioned that the city was moving too fast without giving members of the public a chance to sort through the details of the contract. Some said the deal wouldn't benefit the city until it dropped discussions about staffing from the document and forced the union to make further cuts to firefighters' benefits.
“Sometimes various types of compensation have to be adjusted because of fiscal realities the employer faces,” said Chip Maxwell, executive director of the Omaha Alliance for the Private Sector. “It happens all the time in the private sector, and it needs to happen more in the public sector.”
Mark McQueen, the private attorney who handled contract negotiations for the city, defended the deal against criticism he said has popped up since the deal was made public. He said suggestions that the city has more firefighters than it needs or that it could push back more on staffing-related issues are false.
“If the City Council does not agree to the staffing terms that I've just described, you don't have a contract,” McQueen said. “It's that simple. And without a contract, you don't have pension reform of any type and you don't have health care reform to the level we've achieved.”
Aside from Councilwoman Jean Stothert, a supporter who worked on the deal, and Councilman Franklin Thompson, who said he's still undecided, council members did not share their thoughts on the contract.
Stothert said she didn't want to delay the issue any longer and add to the city's unfunded pension problem. She cautioned critics that there would be more negotiations in the not-so-distant future on another contract because the current proposal would expire in two years.
“At this time next year, we will be back at the table,” she said.
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