City Council reluctantly approves big firefighter raises
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.