Not everything is acrimonious at Bellevue City Hall.
After a year-long dispute between the City of Bellevue and its own Civil Service Commission, an agreement has been reached to allow the city to hire its first class of career firefighters from the Bellevue Fire Department’s existing part-time ranks.
The Civil Service Commission voted Tuesday morning to begin a new hiring process for full-time firefighters after a subcommittee of the commission concluded that “Bellevue has a demonstrated need to get trained full-time personnel on the street for fiscal health and fire protection reasons.”
That need, the subcommittee reasoned, justified the city adding a requirement that anyone applying to become a full-time Bellevue firefighter must already have been employed by the department for at least six months.
“The trained part-time firefighters have the capacity to immediately step into the full-time positions keeping the City of Bellevue protected for fire emergencies,” a report by the subcommittee concluded. “Experience and training with the City of Bellevue fire department is a reasonable requirement under the present circumstances to qualify for the testing.”
The subcommittee, which was made up of Commissioners Mary Hawkins and Randy Bennett, looked at similar situations across the country as many cities transition from a volunteer fire department to a full-time career department, said Mike McClellan, the commission’s attorney.
Hawkins said she is confident and comfortable with the minimum qualification list that the commission approved.
“We spent many hours looking at the best way to provide a transition for the City of Bellevue,” she said. “We’ve navigated a way forward that could actually serve for a model for other department transitions from volunteer to career service.”
Fire Chief Perry Guido said limiting the full-time hiring process to only existing Bellevue firefighters would not be a long-term hiring policy.
“There is a point that this will no longer be necessary,” he said. “We’re just not there right now.”
The list of candidates is good for a year, though, so the city could use it again before it would need the Civil Service Commission to approve another round of testing.
How many firefighters are hired immediately after the testing depends on what the City Council approves as part of the city’s budget process. Guido said he has requested 12 full-time firefighters be hired as part of a five-year plan to add career firefighters.
“This is a good step toward some long-term stability,” he said. “We’ll take whatever we can get.”
Details of the testing process — including dates, the number of candidates who will be advanced for interviews and the wording of the job posting — will be determined at a later date. The commission hired Morrow and Associates to conduct the testing.
A written exam and agility test will be administered to all applicants who meet the minimum criteria. The commission will then select the top candidates to interview, and a final round of interviews may be used to determine the ultimate eligibility list.
The dispute over how to hire full-time firefighters traces back to Aug. 1, 2012, when City Administrator Dan Berlowitz approved having the commission establish a full-time firefighter eligibility list.
The commission approved a testing process, while at the same time last summer the city was negotiating with the Bellevue Professional Firefighters Association for an initial collective bargaining agreement.
A provision in the proposed union contract said BPFA members must be given preference should the city hire full-time firefighters, which prompted a legal concern from then-Commissioner Jim Kresnik, whom Berlowitz later decided not to reappoint to the commission.
McClellan notified the city on Oct. 18, 2012, that the BPFA contract conflicted with the Civil Service Commission’s certification rules.
The contract was still approved, including the full-time preference clause, and Mayor Rita Sanders signed the contract Dec. 10, 2012.
The following February, the city asked the commission to create two eligibility lists — one with current part-time firefighters and another with outside applicants. At a meeting March 11, the commission spent two hours discussing legal issues and established a subcommittee to come up with a solution.
Bellevue left a joint testing agreement with the City of Papillion shortly thereafter, and Papillion City Administrator Dan Hoins raised concerns Bellevue’s plan violated the law by giving preference to part-time firefighters.
The subcommittee report, however, observed that the City of Omaha did not subject the firefighters it brought in from the Millard Rural Fire Protection District to a civil service test because of “the immediate need to have fire protection in that part of the City of Omaha as well as to have persons familiar with the area and facilities.”
Bellevue now has 21 percent fewer firefighters and 57 percent fewer paramedics than when it began the transition from a volunteer to a paid fire department, the report found.
“The loss of trained personnel has led to fairly drastic staffing measures by the Bellevue Fire Department,” the report found. “An immediate need for fire protection with firefighters that possess site-specific experience in Bellevue, justifies including preferred criteria in an exam for full-time firefighters.”