Richmond firefighter contract hangs on Common Council vote

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Sides present arguments related to impasse, panel’s recommendations

Ten months after negotiations began, Richmond Fire Department members do not have a 2023 contract.

Richmond Common Council could approve one on Feb. 6, or the negotiating process could continue. Council must decide whether to accept or reject recommendations from a fact-finding panel enlisted to help resolve the impasse between the city and RFD’s union, the International Association of Firefighters AFL-CIO Local 1408.

The five-person panel’s final recommendation was for a two-year contract with 2% raises each year and the addition of three new positions to ease overtime strains. The panel did not recommend the union receive its requested longevity extension from 20 to 25 years for pension calculations. The city found the panel’s recommendations untenable, a decision that brought the issues before council.

During their Jan. 17 meeting, council members heard from city administration and Local 1408, but they delayed their vote until the Feb. 6 meeting. If council accepts the final recommendations, which came after the panel initially based recommendations on a misunderstanding, they become the new contract terms; however, if council rejects the recommendations, the parties return to the panel and continue negotiations.

Mayor Dave Snow said he must project the city’s financial sustainability out 10 to 20 years when deciding whether to accept the contract recommendations. He said the city offered a “good-faith package” that was dismissed by Local 1408. That extended negotiations beyond passage of the city’s 2023 budget.

“If you look back at 2022, all other city departments, all other department heads, all council members all worked together,” Snow said. “We all got our work done, and we came to a feasible budget for 2023. Only Local 1408, they are the only party that did not complete that process along with everyone else.

“We feel as though it’s a disservice to all of our time and efforts when our transparent and good-faith offer is dismissed.”

Nick Arbogast, the Local 1408 secretary and chief negotiator, said the fire department’s original proposal was a three-year contract with 4% raises each year, six new positions, the increased pension longevity and supplemental benefits that included parity with Richmond Police Department in longevity calculations, holiday pay and supplemental medical stipends for retirees age 65 and older.

The city responded with a two-year contract offer that included a 4.5% raise in 2023, but no raise in 2024, Arbogast said. Local 1408 then asked for the 4.5% raise in 2023, the pension longevity increase and three new members.

“We as a union understood that the city may be under some financial distress and ultimately tried to find a way that the city and union would both benefit,” Arbogast said.

That’s where negotiations stood in July, said Cynthia Holm, the city’s contracted negotiator. The city told Local 1408 it could have two of the three requests in a three-year contract or one in a two-year contract, but the union did not accept.

Arbogast said the city pulled the 4.5% raise from the table just days before the December panel hearing, and the city asked the panel that if it recommended raises they be implemented across four years. The panel thought Arbogast’s request was for 4.5% raises in 2023 and 2024, so its initial recommendations included a 2% raise in 2023 and a 3% raise in 2024.

When the city questioned why the raise total was more than Local 1408 requested, the panel met again and amended its wages recommendation.

RFD members received a 5% raise each year of its contract from 2020 through 2022. That was part of the city’s recognition that many of its wages, including firefighters, were low and leading to turnover. Controller Emily Palmer said that federal CARES Act and American Rescue Plan Act dollars have helped the city meet its contractual obligations, but those one-time distributions are not sustainable.

The city is using $1.5 million in ARPA money to fund the 2023 budget it adopted.

Even if there are no raises, firefighters receive a financial benefit each year on their service anniversary. The increases begin at $938.73 for members with one or two years of service. Those longevity increases will cost the city an extra $59,710.59.

Arbogast noted that when the 2023 budget passed Snow said the city was in good financial shape with a responsible budget. He questioned, then, how the city could not afford two years of 2% raises, especially knowing that lower wages lead to member turnover.

The three additional positions would present a cost savings for the city by lowering overtime payments and reducing the stress on members, according to Arbogast.

“Not only does the overtime of $1.4 million hurt the city budget, but it’s also hurting our families when we continuously have to take mandatory overtime,” he said.

Snow countered that adding positions increases the base employment number in the contract and commits the city to that employment number moving forward.

“This is not a discussion on the overall financial health of the city as it’s attempting to be framed,” Snow said. “This is simply a matter of we all have deadlines in our occupations. Deadlines exist for a reason and there’s an expectation that deadlines are met, and everyone else did their work and met their deadline. That’s what this conversation is about.”

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