By Ross Markman
Four of five proposed changes to the Havre firefighters' labor contract were informally agreed upon Monday night by the Havre City Council finance committee. The fifth centers on the firefighters' wages and on how much the city's health insurance premiums will increase something they haven't done in a decade.
"We're very happy with what the city is proposing back to us," firefighters' union representative Kelly Jones said after the meeting.
But that doesn't mean the union, Local 601 of the International Association of Firefighters, isn't concerned.
"We're kind of worried about the insurance," said Jones, a driver/operator with the Havre Fire Department. "We're not sure about the percentage if we're going to get dinged on the insurance."
Jones and other members of the fire union refused to comment on the negotiations with the city unless the finance committee was present.
Finance committee chairman Tom Farnham confirmed this agreement, saying it was to prevent the media from "pitting sides" during negotiations.
In its initial proposal to the finance committee, the union had asked for a 7 to 8 percent raise in the upcoming fiscal year, and a 6 to 8 percent raise in each of the ensuing two years. The amount of the increase would depend on the employee's rank with the department, Jones said.
A probationary firefighter, classified as Grade 1, is the low end of the pay raise scale, while a captain, classified as Grade 6, is the upper end.
The city's counterproposal called for a 4 percent raise for all fire department employees in fiscal year 2002-03, a 3 percent increase the following year, and a 2 percent salary jump in the final year of the three-year contract, 2004-05.
After a 30-minute caucus, the four union representatives in attendance at Monday's meeting returned with a counterproposal of their own. The union, Jones said, would accept a 4 percent raise in the upcoming year and the next, and a 3 percent increase in 2004-05.
In the second year of its current two-year contract, the 15 members of the firefighters union received a 1.5 percent pay increase, Farnham said.
According to Farnham, city insurance premiums have remained the same for the last 10 years. A single city employee pays $5 a month, a married employee with no children pays $115 a month, and an employee with a family of three or more pays $165 a month.
Because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the state of the economy, Farnham said, those rates will increase.
"We were very fortunate to keep it for 10 years without an increase," he said.
In its other proposals, the union asked that overtime be paid at a rate of 1.5 times the regular hourly pay scale for callbacks and always paid for a minimum of two hours. After the first two hours, the union requested that overtime be paid in half-hour increments.
The city said it prefers to stay with the department's current overtime policy, which Farnham said is time-and-a-half for the first two hours and regular time thereafter. The union agreed.
The union also asked that each employee receive full payment $350 for the first-time purchase of fire gear. The city agreed that each employee would receive an annual allowance of $350 to go toward clothing. But for employees hired after July 1, the city would pay the $350 to the union's secretary/treasurer on the employee's date of hire. The employee would then receive the $350 on his/her anniversary date each year.
The union, once again, agreed.
In its third request, the union asked that basic emergency medical technicians receive a raise in skill pay of $45, or a total of $100, a month. It also asked that intermediate EMTs receive a raise of $70 a month, from $80 to $150.
The city proposed a raise of $25 for basic EMTs and $50 for intermediate. The union and city agreed to the city's proposal.
The two sides also agreed on the union's fourth proposal a stipulation allowing the fire chief to charge a firefighter's time off to sick leave for another employee if the firefighters wants to donate that time.
The fire union's current contract expires June 30, Farnham said. If an agreement is not reached until after that date, the terms of the contract are retroactive to July 1, he said.
"We don't even set our preliminary budget until late July or August," Farnham said. "Sometimes we don't get settled until the fall."