By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Local firefighters are hoping for new boots and a 4 percent across-the-board raise next year as they enter contract negotiations with the city.
The Labor Relations Committee of the Havre City Council met with representatives of Local 601 of the International Association of Firefighters Tuesday night to approve ground rules for the negotiations, which are still in their early stages, and to hear the proposals of the firefighters union.
The contract will affect 15 local firefighters.
The requested wage increase is the same the union received last August after the union rejected the city's offer of a 3 percent raise.
Committee chair Jack Brandon told the union representatives that his committee is still waiting on the Finance Committee, which is still drafting the city's budget, to find out how much money is available for wage increases.
"We don't have any commitment yet from the Finance Committee," Brandon said. He said he hopes the next time the groups meet, the committee can address the issues involving the budget.
Finance Committee chair Tom Farnham said this morning the union's wage increase request is not out of line.
"We try to give the employees something every year," he said, but added, "It's getting tougher and tougher every year." Farnham said the union may need to compromise this year.
He said he will meet with Brandon to go over the union's requests in the next day or two.
Two of the union's eight proposals were resolved Tuesday night, but neither dealt with major issues like wage increases. The union's second proposal was to remove a reference in the contract to a program for students to help take calls at the fire station in exchange for free room there. Joe Parenteau, a member of the union's negotiation committee, said the program ended years ago but the language was never removed from the contract.
The union and the city agreed to drop proposal 6, which asked the city to recognize a new National Fire Protection Association firefighting safety standard that specifies how many firefighters must be on the scene a given number of minutes after a call is received.
Parenteau said to avoid liability, both parties need to recognize the new standard.
The committee agreed that can be done without an item in the contract.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice, who attended the meeting, said he will work with Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard and Assistant Chief Tim Ranes to ensure city recognition of the new standard.
Along with the wages, the union also asked for an increase of $20 per month in the skill pay awarded to certified emergency medical technicians at the basic and intermediate training levels, and the addition of a third level of skill pay, $200 per month for paramedics.
EMTs who have received training at a basic level receive $80 a month, which would increase to $100. Those with intermediate training receive $130, which would increase to $150.
Parenteau said today there are now five EMTs at the basic level, 12 at the intermediate and one who is nearly finished with paramedic training.
The proposal examined most closely by the committee called for a new contract article that would require that firefighters' health insurance premiums be paid to employees as part of their base wage in order to boost their eventual retirement pay.
"We would pay the full amount of our insurance out of our base pay," said Mike Anderson, the chair of the union's negotiation committee.
Labor Relations Committee member Doug Larson said he was concerned that such a move might decrease the number of employees contributing to the insurance pool because employees would be free to buy insurance elsewhere.
"They might go someplace cheaper," Larson said, adding that new, young employees were especially likely to go off in search of cheaper premiums. "He's going to take the $300 and run, and there goes your pool."
Anderson acknowledged that possibility and suggested adding language that would require employees to use the insurance money on the city plan.
"I don't think you could control it though," Larson said.
"If you make it part of their base pay, you won't be able to stipulate how they spend it," he said.
Brandon decided the committee would need to examine the proposal further at later meetings.
"I think we need to look more at this," he said.
The union is also requesting the city purchase wildland boots for firefighters. Anderson said the army-type steel shank boots can be used for different kinds of fires, and also are dressy enough to be worn with a uniform.
He did not have a precise cost estimate for the boots yet.
Three other proposals were discussed Tuesday night.
One proposal asked for more specific language on an article concerning pay for employees who fill a higher rank for more than 30 days while a co-worker is injured or on sick leave. The employee filling in receives the wage of the higher rank during that time.
Anderson said there has been uncertainty for many years over how the 30 days should be calculated.
Two remaining proposals deal with making changes like updating the year listed on the contract and determining whether it will be a one-year or a multi-year contract.
The committee's next meeting will be on Aug. 25 at 7 p.m.