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Firefighters contract talks hit impasse; mediation is next

 

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Negotiations between city officials and the local firefighters union broke down Tuesday night, forcing them into mediation. The firefighters follow Havre police, who came to loggerheads with the city July 30.

The firefighters Tuesday rejected the city's latest offer, which was smaller than its previous proposal.

The city offered the firefighters a 3 percent raise for the 2002-03 year. The city on July 23 had offered a three-year contract with 4 percent the first year, 3 percent the second and 2 percent the last. The union had proposed no pay raise for the first half of the contract's first year, a 7 percent increase for the second half of the year, and a 4 percent increase for the second year.

Tom Farnham, chairman of the City Council's finance committee, said a tight budget forced the city to reduce its offer. The City Council approved a preliminary budget Monday night.

"We can't really stick our necks out with the way the budget is," he said. "We didn't know that we were there until we crunched the numbers."

Kelly Jones, vice president of Local 601 of the International Association of Firefighters, expressed surprise at the new offer.

"Where did the money go if you thought at the time you could give the 4 percent?" he asked.

City finance director Lowell Swenson said today the budget shortfall for next year is nearly $100,000. The Havre City Council and finance committee both meet Thursday night to discuss the budget cuts. Farnham suggested the firefighters go to the meetings to see how the city's money is being spent.

The mediation process will begin with a joint letter to state mediator Paul Melvin in Helena. The process costs Havre no money, and is paid for by the state Department of Labor, Farnham said.

Mediation could be avoided if the sides come to a mutual agreement before he arrives, Farnham said, but that is unlikely.

At earlier meetings, negotiations between the city and the union went smoothly, with most points of discussion agreed to quickly.

At those meeting, the union agreed to stay with the department's current overtime policy, which is time and a half for the first two hours and regular time thereafter.

It also agreed that each firefighter would receive an annual allowance of $350 to purchase firefighting clothing. The city and union also settled on a raise for emergency medical technicians $25 for basic EMTs and $50 for intermediate. That will be paid in addition to any pay increase included in the contract.

The union's contract expired on June 30. When an agreement is reached, the terms of the new contract will be retroactive to July 1.

 

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