The city has tried to move station No. 11 since at least 2002, when Lincoln voters rejected a bond issue that would have relocated the station, which is now housed in an airport operations building owned by the Lincoln Airport Authority.
You may remember when in 2006 I wrote about a scurrilous attempt by someone in Mayor Coleen Seng’s administration to pull a fast one and get a new station built by claiming — falsely — that the Airport Authority was kicking the fire station out. They weren’t; the council changed it’s mind and wasn’t too happy about being misled.
Now, the issue is back on the front burner. It’s true, the station doesn’t see much action — averaging one call per day (even less back in 2006) — so workers there do a lot of other things. But it would also cost at least a million bucks to build a new station. And you’ve got to assume population is only going to grow in northwest Lincoln, isn’t it?
In my six years covering city hall in Lincoln, one of the most common complaints I heard from readers was — I am not kidding — about firefighters doing grocery shopping while on the clock.
They did not think firefighters should shop for food while on duty — even though this is pretty standard nationwide (at least that’s what the union head told me) and if a call comes in, the firefighters drop everything and go.
Well, apparently that practice is about to end in Lincoln. Coby Mach of “Drive Time Lincoln” is reporting that the city’s former police chief and new public safety director, Tom Casady, intends to end the practice. But apparently not just to avoid the appearance of inactivity — to save money on gas.
What do you think? I have to say, I’ve never encountered a firefighter in a grocery store — although I’ve seen firetrucks parked outside many a store and restaurant where they appeared to be making a pit stop.
I don’t believe I’ve ever gone grocery shopping while on the clock — but then I got a lunch break and other “coffee breaks” every day. Still, I never could figure out why firefighters couldn’t just bring their food with them to the fire station, just as most workers bring their lunch to work.
Then again, if this is one of the biggest gripes we have about the fire department, life is pretty good in Lincoln, Neb.
In all of the massive coverage of the Lincoln Public Schools fire, I couldn’t find any story that said how fast firefighters arrived on the scene of the fire that destroyed Lincoln’s school headquarters.
So I asked Interim Fire Chief John Huff about it. He responded today, saying,
According to our incident records, the incident was dispatched at 11:05:47. The first arriving unit was E9 which arrived at 11:08:59.
Lincoln Fire & Rescue’s goal is to arrive on the scene within four minutes 90 percent of the time, but last year at this time, the fire department was not consistently hitting that mark. They were only making it 63 percent of the time. Former Fire Chief Niles Ford said at the time that they were still analyzing the data and trying to figure out why response times had dropped significantly.
We really never heard much more about this — which is really a big deal if you think about it. It’s a good thing firefighters made it to the LPS fire within that target range.
The head of Lincoln’s firefighters’ union says the group doesn’t have an opinion on the mayor’s decision to make the police chief the head of a public safety department, overseeing both the police and fire chiefs.
Dave Engler, president of the Lincoln Firefighters Association, which represents about 270 fire employees, said the union was never asked for input on creating a public safety head.
“We were told this is the way it’s going to be,” he said. “My boss will be the fire chief. That’s who we will still deal with.”
He said Police Chief Tom Casady is an intelligent guy.
“I’m not one to say that the sky’s falling because he has the ability to bring a lot to the table,” Engler said.
While the relationship between police officers and firefighters is traditionally tense, Engler said in Lincoln the two have a “professional working relationship” that’s not as strong as in some cities. In some cities, police fraternize with firefighters at the stations.
“We get along to some extent, I would say,” he said. “I don’t think it’s (their relationship) as strong as it is in some cities.”
On another fire issue, Engler said his union is close to a contract with the city. In Omaha, the mayor’s decision to proceed with a fire union agreement has come under fire because it would be approved before the new state law governing negotiations goes into effect. However, Engler said the new law wouldn’t have any effect on the agreement – which calls for no raises for firefighters next year, even though salary surveys indicate they are entitled to an increase.
Firefighters took heat earlier this year for getting 6 percent raises this year, plus longevity bonuses that pushed some raises past 10 percent. Engler said the union negotiated 0 percent raises the year prior, and some city officials expressed concern that if they didn’t take raises this year they would just fall farther behind on salaries and then have to catch up in coming years.
That conflicts with some city officials’ claims that if the city didn’t approve the 6 percent raise this year, the fire union would likely go to the state Commission of Industrial Relations and get an even bigger raise.
“This year we’re taking 0 percent because you’re never gonna win in this,” Engler said.
I give the firefighters props for that — and a demerit to the mayor’s office for portraying firefighters as willing to run to the CIR, when in reality they offered to take no raise at all this year.
The paper says Fire Chief Niles Ford has been offered a job as a city manager in an Atlanta suburb, and I expect he’ll take it.
Ford replaced former Fire Chief Mike Spadt — after several tumultuous years fraught with controversy over firetrucks that didn’t meet city specifications and clashes with Councilman Jon Camp. Ford stepped into a hot mess, but he handled it with self-deprecating, humble aplomb.
However, from the start, there were signs his family was not easily making the transition from its home in the South to Lincoln, Neb. I know his wife often visited relatives back home, where he has ailing relatives.
Just a year after Ford began working here, he applied for a job as fire chief in Austin, Texas, but didn’t get it. He also got caught up in a big controversy of his own in 2009, when the mayor and City Council began clashing over the cost of a minimum staffing provision that got inserted into the fire union contract.
Throughout the mess — during which I tried to sort out who made a $300,000 error — Ford remained silent, refusing to comment, being a good soldier for Beutler. I know he could have said a lot.
So I expect he’ll go (weirdly, if you go to the fire department website, it features a photo of assistant chief John Huff on the home page).
Ford seems to be a truly good person who had a monumental task when he took the job as fire chief here. I wish him well.
I’m reading about the governor’s proposed budget today, and I’m trying to figure out how he can get by with proposing a salary freeze the first year of the budget, and 2 percent the second year — while Lincoln’s city officials say they had no choice but to give firefighters up to 10 percent raises this year or face losing at a state arbitration board.
Gov. Dave Heineman seems to get by with the slimmest of raises for state employees — and they’re governed by the same laws that govern city employees and all public employees. Sometimes the state employee unions put up a fight, but they don’t seem to get much traction.
Meanwhile, the city of Lincoln is handing out double-digit-raises (to firefighters alone) and claiming they have to — because the Commission of Industrial Relations will force them to if firefighters appeal. Can somebody explain this to me? Maybe I’m missing something.
The question on everybody’s mind as a downtown Lincoln adult novelty store continued to smolder three days after the fire began on Sunday morning: Was it arson?
“I haven’t ruled anything out,” Chief Lincoln Fire Inspector Bill Moody said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. The cause of the blaze – which started in the back of the building — is “very much undetermined,” he said.
While investigators were able to get “some evidence out” of the charred, unstable building, they still need to get into the building to continue the investigation.
He has “very good witnesses” in the firefighters who first responded inside the building, until the second floor “started collapsing” on them.
He called the south side of the building the “area of interest,” but said there’s “tons of debris on it now” because the roof collapsed over it.
However, the building is a safety hazard and engineers don’t want anyone in the building due to the potential for another collapse, which cause structural damage to the building to the west, Moody said.
The city has authorized the building’s demolition perhaps as soon as Friday. The building’s insurance company is flying in a specialty engineer from out of state on Thursday, Moody said, to determine how to take the building down without affecting adjacent buildings.
Once the walls are taken down to a safe level, the investigation can continue – although Moody says the demolition will make the investigation more challenging.
“It’s going to make it a ton more difficult,” he said. “But there’s no other way around it. It does not make my job easier but you sure don’t wanna kill anybody going after a cause. … It has to be done.”
Moody said Lincoln firefighters deserve credit for getting to the fire quickly and preventing more buildings from burning down.
“They really did an outstanding job keeping it to one building,” he said. “Small towns (without professional fire departments) tend to lose town squares, instead of one building.”
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.