South Bend Tribune, Ind.
Oct. 26—SOUTH BEND — The South Bend Common Council Monday gave firefighters a 2.25% pay raise for next year, less than the 2.5% that most other city workers will receive, as an incentive to bring them back to the bargaining table after their union’s contract talks with the city broke down in recent days.
A big problem, council members and Mayor James Mueller said, was that the term “table” could perhaps only be used figuratively in this case, since much of the negotiating happened over email.
“I will say both sides have moved significantly from their starting points,” Council Member Troy Warner said Tuesday, “but I think the major hurdle has been the lack of face-to-face dialogue.”
Warner represented the council in the talks, along with council members Sharon McBride and Sheila Niezgodski, while city attorney Sandra Kennedy led negotiations for the administration. The administration team included different members of the mayor’s office, city human resources department and Controller Dan Parker.
“Most of the meetings probably only lasted five or 10 minutes,” McBride said. “There was really no conversation but just sitting there and listening to the meetings.”
Warner Tuesday said they had three in-person meetings. One lasted about an hour but then the firefighters’ attorney, Tim Curran, got busy and they switched to email negotiation mostly over the last two weeks.
Council member Lori Hamann said she agrees giving firefighters a pay raise smaller than other city employees could motivate them to negotiate more, but “we have two parties here. We are incentivizing one to come back to the table to cooperate. I don’t see an incentive for the other to do so.”
The council had been set to vote on a three-year contract but had to remove 2023 and 2024 salary increases from the bill because of the impasse. Council Attorney Bob Palmer said the council could still amend next year’s salary ordinance later this year if agreement on a three-year deal is reached.
Speaking at Monday’s council meeting, Ryan Takacs, vice president of Firefighters Local 362, said it’s hard not to call a smaller increase for firefighters “a slap in the face.”
“We’re one of the busiest fire departments per capita in the state, we’re one of the best fire departments in the country, and we’re a model department for many other cities that are the same size as us,” Takacs said.
Takacs noted that the Insurance Services Office, a national insurance industry trade group that sets fire safety ratings that homeowner insurers use to set premiums, recently gave the city its highest rating.
“The city likes to use that as a marketing tip on their end, publishes it and puts it out, but when it comes to this stuff when we’re talking about our contract, it doesn’t seem to play into that,” he said.
Takacs said firefighters should be compensated for the risks they’ve taken during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had 30 people off on a shift at one time but we continually went home, we put our families in danger, while others around the city and around the country had the privilege of working from home and kind of keeping themselves safe,” he said. “Obviously that’s part of our job and we understand that. It’s what we choose to do, but it seems that we forget stuff very quickly, how much danger and how hard it was for our families and us to deal with during that time.”
Mueller Tuesday said “we have a great fire department” but that the firefighters “came in with unrealistic, sky-high expectations. The last proposal that came in from the city side was well above the percentages being discussed for any of the salaries last night, and probably is the best, if not the best, offered in other negotiations.”
Mueller said that unlike talks with Teamsters this year and the Fraternal Order of Police union last year, it was difficult to get firefighters to sit down and negotiate. He said firefighters deserve some of the credit for the ISO rating, but 40% of the rating comes from how the city’s Public Works department maintains its fire hydrants, along with the 911 center’s operations.
Takacs said the department ranks 38th in the state in pay. While he acknowledged that the city’s proposed pay increase would have brought them up “in the top 10 pay in the state for maybe a year,” recruits would still only be paid $15.47 an hour for their first year.
“15.47 an hour, we can’t recruit and attract the best talent available and we’re not going to be able to retain our current membership with the offers that we’ve received,” Takacs said. “This is my third negotiation with the city and this has been by far the most frustrating one yet.”
Under the city’s latest proposal, Takacs said, firefighters would make $5,000 a year less than starting police officers.
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