There were lots of reasons given Monday for why the city had little choice but to give its firefighters 7 to 10 percent raises — even though all other city employees got far less.
But the unspoken reason for the 4-3 vote — split along party lines — can be traced back to campaign donations. The four Democrats who voted “yes” on the fire union contract received more money from the firefighters’ union than any other entity when they were elected. And the three Republicans who voted “no” got nothing from the fire union. Take a gander:
• Councilwoman Jayne Snyder got $13,500 from the firefighters’ union, plus more than $7,000 from other unions, during her campaign last year.
• Councilman Gene Carroll received $13,500 from the firefighters’ union during his campaign last year, plus another $9,000 from other unions — accounting for nearly half the money he raised.
• Councilman Doug Emery got $5,000 from the firefighters’ union during his 2007 campaign — accounting for about one-third of all the money he raised, plus another $1,000 from other unions.
• Councilman Jonathan Cook (who tends not to raise much money for his campaigns) got $5,000 from the firefighters’ union during his 2007 campaign — plus another $500 from one other union.
The remaining three Republicans on the council received no donations from the firefighters’ union in their last campaigns.
When the firefighters’ union is responsible for putting up half the money for your campaign in some cases, do you think those candidates don’t feel somewhat beholden to the union at a time like this? Emery and Cook are up for re-election in the spring — do you think they want to risk losing the union’s support?
The legislation now goes to the desk of Mayor Chris Beutler — whose own campaign received $10,000 from the Lincoln firefighters’ union, and another $10,000 from a state firefighters’ union.
When it became clear Lincoln firefighters were headed for double-digit raises this year, in some cases, I started calling around to other union heads to see what their members think of the fact that firefighters will get raises of 7 to 10 percent this year.
Most city employees will get 1 to 2 percent.
I got hold of the presidents of three other city employee unions, but they said they haven’t heard much grumbling from their employees.
Jeff Hillebrand, president of the Lincoln Police Union, said some of his members will complain, but comparing police officers’ raises (1 percent) to firefighters’ (6 percent plus longevity raises of up to 4 percent) would be comparing apples to oranges. (Or more appropriately, comparing apples to watermelons.)
Hillebrand said the city’s negotiators didn’t even offer 1 percent.
“They wanted us to take 0,” he said. The police officers’ salary survey showed they were owed more than 1, and the city’s survey showed they were overpaid, so they met in the middle.
“It’s a tough year for the city, so we weren’t gonna push it,” Hillebrand said.
He said Lincoln police officers earn an average of $60,000 per year; last night Councilman Jon Camp said Lincoln firefighters average $80,000 salaries annually.
Those rebels over in the Public Association of Government Employees weren’t too concerned either, since president Jeff Stump said they expect to get pretty good raises this year, too. PAGE is the union fighting the mayor’s initiative to make retirement benefits less generous for new hires.
And the president of the largest city union, the Lincoln City Employees Association, said while her members haven’t met since the news about firefighter raises came out, she hasn’t heard much complaining that the raises were so much higher than what they got. LCEA negotiated 1.25 percent this year and 1.5 percent next year, president Michele Salvage said.
City officials said firefighters were due the big raises because state law requires that their salaries be commensurate with their peers in similar sized cities, and a joint survey by the city and fire union showed their salaries lagging 10 to 15 percent. I wish someone at the council meeting had asked why the city and union did a joint survey this year, but nobody did.
By DEENA WINTER
The Lincoln City Council has approved big raises for the city’s nearly 300 firefighters, saying their hands are tied by a state law mandating that their salaries keep up with firefighters in similar-sized cities.
The four Democrats on the council voted “yes” tonight, while the three Republicans on the council voted “no.”
City officials defended the new labor contract, which will increase firefighters’ salaries by more than 10 percent in some cases.
Personnel Director Mark Koller said a survey of six other cities (Des Moines, Iowa, Madison, Wisc., Rockford, Ill., St. Paul, Minn., Omaha and Aurora, Ill.) showed Lincoln firefighters were due raises of “potentially” 10 to 15 percent, so if the City Council rejected the proposed contract and the wage dispute went to the state Commission of Industrial Relations, firefighters could be awarded even bigger raises. And that’s just for the cost-of-living raises, not counting longevity bonuses that help boost salaries, so Koller said firefighters could end up getting salary increases of up to 27 percent.
That’s all because of the way public employees are paid in Nebraska: In exchange for giving up the right to strike, public employees have their salaries determined by comparing them to similar cities. Wage disputes are handled by the CIR, which will ensure compensation is “comparable” to other cities, regardless of cities’ budget problems.
The CIR, therefore, has become the bogeyman looming over labor negotiations.
The head of the fire union, Dave Engler, said last year firefighters “attempted to help the city” by taking no raises, but they still heard complaints that they would just slip farther behind other cities. So this year the union decided to take whatever the city offered in wages.
“It’s not our position to determine what the city can and can’t afford,” Engler said.
The Lincoln Independent Business Association urged the council to reject the contract and send negotiators back to the table, saying most firefighters will get raises worth more than $7,000.
“Lincoln cannot be silent while the CIR effectively makes spending decisions,” Mach said.
Republican Councilman Adam Hornung said while the city can never pay police and firefighters enough money, “We can only pay what we can afford to pay.”
Republican Councilman Jon Camp said he agrees, but soldiers at war aren’t being paid “anywhere near” the $80,000 average salary of Lincoln firefighters. Camp said there are typically 300 applicants for each job opening in the fire department, the jobs are so coveted.
But Democratic Councilman Gene Carroll said firefighters could have asked for more money and going to the CIR could cost the city lots more money. Democratic Councilman Jonathan Cook said if the CIR ruled the city owed more, it could cost up to $2 million more.
“We’re gambling with taxpayer money,” Cook said. “We should go with the deal that’s before us.”
And so they did.
Let’s take a closer look at the proposed fire union contract that goes before the Lincoln City Council today at 3 p.m.
A public hearing will be held, and at the end of the meeting the council should vote on the labor contract.
Set aside the two 3 percent raises — or 6 percent raises — that are getting most of the attention. There’s also a new provision that would change the way the city also calculates a tidy little bonus called “longevity.”
You’re probably confused, since most private sector employees don’t get extra pay just for having stuck around at least five years. (Maybe a paper weight or a plaque.) But this is a seniority-based pay system.
And firefighters currently receive up to $2,069 per year in longevity pay. The new contract, however, would change that from a lump sum to a percentage of their salary.
No big deal, right? Wrong.
Let’s take a firefighter who’s worked 25 years. Their $57,128 salary would get a 6 percent cost-of-living increase, but rather than the old $2,069 in longevity pay, they’d get 7 percent of their salary, which is 4,242. That’s more than $2,000 more than they’d get under the old labor contract. Or a 3.8 percent raise.
Let’s see — 6 percent plus 3.8 percent = 9.8 percent. (And these figures come from the city personnel office.) Not too shabby a raise on the heels of the Great Recession, huh?
Let’s take a fire captain who’s worked for the city for 10 years. They currently make a little more than $67,000. Under the old labor agreement, the captain would get $851 in longevity pay. But under the Mayor Chris Beutler-endorsed union contract, the captain would get $2,140 in longevity. That’s $1,289 more than he/she would have gotten before, or the equivalent of a 1.9 percent salary increase.
That works out to about an 8 percent raise for that captain. Nice, huh?
Think those are probably flukes? Figures calculated by the city personnel office show raises ranging from 7.6 percent to 10.7 percent.
But don’t take my word for it. Read the document yourself: 2010-12-8–Total-Impact-of-Fire-Contract–2010-2011
How will Mayor Beutler justify these kinds of raises for just one group of city employees, when all the other city employees “took one for the team” and accepted paltry (by comparison — many employees would love to have any raise these days) 1 to 2 percent raises this year?
Is it possible this is payback for all the money the firefighters’ union gave Beutler and the Democrat-controlled City Council? The fire union gave more money to the recently elected Democrats than anybody else, by a long shot. So how will the Dems on the council vote on this contract? And how will they justify 7 to 10 percent raises for just one group of employees?
I can’t wait to find out.
So let’s say I still worked for the paper and I got a 3 percent raise this week, and then another 3 percent in February.
After nearly dying of shock — given the fact that they haven’t given raises out for years — I would call my husband and say, “Guess what? I’m getting a 4.5 percent raise!”
Of course not. I’d say, “Honey! I’m getting a 6 percent raise! I haven’t gotten that kind of raise since that one promotion back in 1993!”
Not in Rick Hoppe’s world. The mayor’s chief of staff characterizes it this way: Since the second 3 percent won’t come until February, about halfway through the fiscal year, really it’s only a 4.5 percent raise.
At least that’s how he’s selling the firefighters labor agreement that goes to the City Council for public hearing Monday. They’d get a 3 percent raise retroactive to August (because they’ve been working without a contract since then, as negotiations dragged on) and another 3 percent in February.
That’s a 6 percent raise this fiscal year any way you cut it. When the next fiscal year rolls around, everybody’s salaries will be 6 percent higher. Period.
But leave it to the spin doctor, Hoppe, to teach us this New Math. Not content to adjust 6 percent down to 4.5 percent, he also points out that since firefighters didn’t get a raise last year, really it’s more like a 2.25 percent raise over the two-year period.
Believe me, the firefighters didn’t take a 0 percent raise last year for nothing. They got something, and it’s called minimum staffing. That’s a guarantee that the city will always have at least 76 firefighters on duty. They’d been fighting for that for a long time, and they finally got it. Critics say it’s really about giving them more job security in an era when firefighters respond to more medical emergencies than actual fires.
Is anybody buying Hoppe’s math? Here’s the lede in the Journal Star today: “Lincoln firefighters are getting a 2.3 percent raise, or a 4.5 percent raise, or a 6 percent raise, depending on who’s doing the math.”
Here’s who’s doing that math: Hoppe, Hoppe, and the rest of the world.
Mayor Chris Beutler’s administration has agreed to whopping 6 percent raises for the firefighters in a deal that soon will go before the Lincoln City Council for approval.
The firefighters’ union has agreed to a sweet deal where firefighters would get a 3 percent raise that’s retroactive to Aug. 19, plus another 3 percent Feb. 17.
Although it’s true the firefighters got no cost-of-living raises last year, they did get a coveted minimum staffing provision in exchange, in what critics say is a nationwide firefighter move to secure their jobs and boost their numbers.
These are much better raises than all the other city employees received — their raises ranged from 1 to 2 percent in what was viewed as a sacrifice for the good of the cash-strapped city. (One union, however, hasn’t finished negotiations because it’s appealing to a state arbitration board over retirement benefits.)
Dave Engler, head of the firefighters union, said he doesn’t consider it a 6 percent raise, since they won’t get the second 3 percent until halfway through the fiscal year. That, combined with the fact that firefighters didn’t get a COLA raise last year, “equals 2.25 percent (raises) for the last two years.”
But in an era where many employees aren’t getting raises at all — at the Journal Star, employees have gone without raises for nearly three years — the 3+3 raise looks pretty good.
The proposed labor agreement also changes the longevity bonus from a fixed amount to a percentage of salary, which is another plum for firefighters. For example, right now an employee with 25 years of service gets a flat $2,069 bonus for longevity, but under the new deal, they would get 7 percent of their salary. That could amount to a much bigger bonus for sticking around so long.
There are also changes to the section on minimum staffing (remember the controversy over that new provision about a year ago?) that appear to more clearly define which types of employees count toward the minimum number who must be on duty 24/7.
Another new section gives firefighters an automatic $3.29 per hour raise if they move into a 40-hour-a-week job in administration, training or maintenance.
I’m anxious to hear what the firefighters did to deserve such big raises — aside from contribute more money to Beutler and the Democrats on the council than any other entity in Lincoln. I’m also anxious to hear where the money to pay for this contract will come from, given that the municipal budget only penciled in about 2 percent raises across-the-board.