Learn more about how the proposed fire union contract would address key issues. omaha.com/firecontract
Mayor Jim Suttle signed a new fire union contract into law Wednesday, though he said the agreement will put Omaha's budget in the hole next year.
Higher-than-expected wage increases and a new contractual obligation to give dozens of firefighters paramedic training will be largely responsible for a nearly $6 million city shortfall in next year's budget, added the head of the City Finance Department.
The shortfall is expected in spite of additional funds budgeted for 2013 to accommodate the new contract's costs, Finance Director Pam Spaccarotella said.
Suttle alluded to the possibility of cutting city services to make up the budget gap as he signed the City Council-led agreement into law.
“Say some prayers — we're gonna need it,” the mayor said.
Council negotiators say paramedic training requirements are simply based on agreements that the Suttle administration reached with the union and part of an ongoing public safety effort to put more paramedics on firetrucks.
Suttle addressed the agreement Wednesday, the day after the council's 6-1 vote, rather than join a chorus of mayoral candidates and others who had previously attacked various provisions.
“It is because of my sincere commitment to reforming our pension system that I plan on signing the fire contract sent to me,” Suttle said before signing the deal.
Supporters of the City Council's agreement say it not only puts the police and fire pension fund on a path to solvency, but it obtains concessions on pensions and health care beyond those contained in an earlier contract negotiated by Suttle.
The mayor said his management team will meet in January to discuss how to address filling the budget gap. The council stripped labor bargaining rights from the mayor last year after rejecting an agreement negotiated by his administration.
Councilwoman Jean Stothert, head of the council negotiating committee that pursued a new labor contract, described Suttle's comments as “flawed and misleading.”
“And he is leaving out a lot of important facts,” said Stothert, who is one of Suttle's challengers in next year's mayoral election.
“The City Council was aware of some short-term losses, but we were focused on long-term gains with the goal of significant health care and pension reform. The City Council got a better deal, hands down.”
Council members have said funds saved in a city wage adjustment account would provide adequate cushion for any increased costs associated with the contract.
The administration also included wage increases in its contract proposal, basing its rates on cities similar to Omaha.
But Spaccarotella calculates that the council's contract will require spending $17.6 million on Fire Department personnel expenses, with only $11.8 million in the wage adjustment account — leaving a roughly $5.8 million shortfall.
Those personnel costs, Spaccarotella said, include roughly $3 million worth of overtime she calculates will be necessary to staff trucks and engines while 48 firefighters leave their normal duties to receive paramedic training next year.
Council negotiators have said the paramedic training initiative is designed to get certified paramedics on more of the city's fire trucks and engines in an effort to boost public safety.
“The actual (training) class itself is probably minimal, but the problem is that you have to take firefighters off the rig to do it,” Spaccarotella said.
The city's 2013 budget also anticipated firefighters would receive a 1.75 percent pay raise, Spaccarotella said. The contract grants a 2.25 percent wage increase to firefighters in 2013.
“Those are the two driving factors — they're getting a bigger (wage) increase than I anticipated and these paramedic classes,” Spaccarotella said.
She said the council never asked to have costs associated with paramedic training examined before the contract was ratified.
The city will analyze whether using overtime to fill the staffing gaps is cheaper than simply hiring new firefighters early next year.
“We're going to have to make that decision quick,” Spaccarotella said.
The new fire contract will run through 2014.
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