Voters to settle contract dispute between OKC, firefighters union

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Voters will have to mediate a contract dispute between the city and the local firefighters union, after the city council elected to "appeal" the decision of an independent arbitrator.

At stake: the next collective bargaining agreement between the City of Oklahoma City and the IAFF Local 157, after negotiations reached an impasse.

Six members of the City Council agreed to let the public decide in a Jan. 10 special election forgoing an arbitrator's findings, which concluded among other things that the city's plan featured an "absence of concrete evidence of the actual savings" and that budgetary concerns should take a back seat to the "industrial peace."

Read: Arbitrator's Decision

"It’s very disappointing," said Scott VanHorn, president of the union. "We felt our last best offer was submitted and was cheaper for the city than the city’s last best offer."

Firefighters agreed not to ask for an increase in wages and even offered a $400 cut to each member's insurance plan, lower than any other city employee.

Still, city officials take issue with compensation for firefighters taking paid time off. Currently, they are paid time-and-a-half for vacations and other sick leave.

"Times are too tough," said Assistant City Manager M.T. Berry. "That has to come to an end. We just don’t believe that paying somebody overtime for time they do not work, that that has run its course and it’s time to stop that."

The city also wants to use non-uniform civilians to take calls at dispatch instead of the 18 firefighters that currently do the job.

Berry said no firefighters would lose their jobs, and on-the-clock overtime would be unaffected, but the moves would save at least $1 million up front.

Both are measures Berry said are only fair after public safety took a smaller share of city-wide budget cuts this year(2.6 percent vs. 5.5 percent) and are necessary to avoid closing fire stations or taking vehicles off the streets.

"If we were to win [the special election], the impact of having that decision made in our favor could result in an additional cost savings of anywhere between $2-5 million," Berry said. "We have a fiscal responsibility for the city to develop a budget for the city and then maintain that budget. We’ve got to do that."

But the union sees it differently. VanHorn argues experienced firefighters are more useful working dispatch, which is often seen as a safer way for injured or older firefighters to serve their community.

"It helps to have someone that’s been there, that’s ridden in a firetruck before, who’s done the work," he said. "I believe it is a little bit of a personal attack against firefighters and I’m not really sure why. I don’t understand."

Firefighters have been receiving overtime vacation pay for around 15 years, VanHorn said, the product of a past contract negotiation when the union made concessions.

Removing the perk could result in more firefighters calling in sick if overtime vacations are scrapped, which VanHorn said will hurt departments, in part because they are a less predictable time off option and crews must work more quickly to fill the positions.

In January, voters will be asked to choose between the two contracts in an election that could cost around $100,000.

Mayor Mick Cornett called it a "rare" situation.

A special election nearly happened under similar circumstances in 2009, but it was ultimately canceled because the two sides could not agree on the wording on the ballot and reconciled.

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