Shortly before Christmas, Tacoma’s roughly 350 firefighters offered to work one more day per year for the next two years at no added cost – concessions meant to help spare the city from cutting fire services by $1 million, the president of Tacoma’s fire union said this week.
The offer would have created enough savings to keep the Proctor District’s Station 13 staffed with two firefighters around the clock, rather than closing it overnight.
“What we offered ultimately would have made one more Tacoma firefighter available each day,” said Ryan Mudie, president of Local 31. “It allowed the fire chief to have more people in the work pool to be used as he saw fit.”
But city officials rejected the offer and moved forward with planned cuts to the Proctor station and two others this week.
The reason? City Manager T.C. Broadnax said the union’s offer simply didn’t make sense in the long run.
“The proposal presented to the city by Local 31 was not fiscally sound or sustainable,” Broadnax said this week in a written statement sent via email. “In this economic climate, we must make prudent decisions.”
As more details about the fire union’s concession offers emerged this week, Broadnax planted his feet firmly into what has been his general fiscal philosophy since taking the city’s helm last year: Tacoma can no longer rely on short-term fixes to solve its budget problems.
While the latest budget crisis has been dealt with largely through across-the-board cuts to city departments, Tacoma still faces a projected $20 million shortfall in 2015-16. A big part of the city’s long-term budget puzzle will be figuring out how to pay for existing firefighters and cops in the future, Broadnax has said. That includes funding officers and firefighters now paid for by federal grants that temporarily helped to stave off more than 50 layoffs – grants Broadnax supported.
“Short-term solutions that will not pay for themselves and/or result in future unfunded costs, are not an option and will not be considered,” Broadnax’s statement said. “The changes to fire and EMS services adopted as part of the 2013-14 biennial budget are being implemented because they are sustainable.”
Broadnax was not available for an interview Wednesday or Thursday, said city spokeswoman Gwen Schuler.
Under what he called a “back to basics” general fund budget plan for 2013-14, Broadnax called for $63 million in cuts and adjustments. They were approved last month by the City Council.
The plan meant an $11 million cut to the Fire Department, which trimmed its force by about 30 firefighters, mostly through retirement buyouts.
Like most city departments, staffing is the city fire agency’s biggest expense. Pay for Tacoma’s frontline firefighters ranges from about $54,400 to $74,900 per year, according to the current pay scale. More senior and specialized firefighters can make much more than that, with pay for the medical services officer who oversees all EMS operations topping out at $148,650 annually.
The funding cuts forced Fire Chief Jim Duggan to come up with a new deployment strategy. It involves reducing staff and service at stations in Proctor and on the East Side, and closing the only station in the Port of Tacoma. Emergency responses to all of the affected neighborhoods are to be covered or supported by firefighters and equipment housed in other parts of the city.
Duggan’s strategy met with resistance. Longshoremen complained that closing the port station will put lives at risk, and some Proctor residents worried emergency response to their neighborhood will be dangerously slow.
But city officials have stood by the plan, saying it appears sound and should continue to provide emergency response to all neighborhoods at or near pre-reduction levels.
Still, council members made it clear throughout the budget process they wanted Broadnax to negotiate with city labor unions to find ways to potentially blunt his proposed cutbacks.
The firefighters union came forward in late November, Mudie said.
“When you look across the city, there weren’t a lot of other unions at the table,” he said. “We were the only ones there offering solutions.”
Local 31’s first offer was a vow to come up with $500,000 of concessions, so long as the city matched that amount, Mudie said.
“If we’re truly the city’s ‘labor partners,’ as the mayor always says, then we said, ‘OK, let’s split this,’” Mudie said. “We’ll put in half and you put in half.”
A day later, the city rejected the union’s offer without an explanation or counter-proposal, Mudie said.
Undeterred, the union came back with another, more specific offer about three weeks later — just before the council took its holiday break.
The union offered to revise its current contract, which calls for salaried firefighters to work 46.1 hours per week. Instead, firefighters would work 46.6 hours at no additional compensation, Mudie said.
The additional time on the job would add up to about one extra day per year for each firefighter, Mudie said. The offer would have been good through the two-year general fund budget cycle. In all, the added work time amounted to a $1 million offer — $500,000 each year.
It would have been up to the chief to decide how to use the additional staffing, Mudie said, but the offer covered the amount city officials had said was needed to staff the Proctor station with two firefighters around the clock.
Union officials presented the offer to the fire chief and Human Resources Director Joy St. Germain in mid-December, Mudie said.
“We didn’t hear a word for three weeks,” he said.
After a closed door meeting that included Broadnax, the fire chief and the council on Tuesday, city officials informed the union its offer had been rejected.
Again, the city provided no explanation or counter-offer, Mudie said.
“Usually how it works is, if you don’t think (an offer’s) going to work perfectly, you tweak it to make it work,” Mudie said. “They didn’t do that. They didn’t come with a counter-offer. They just cut us loose.”
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542