POCATELLO — Mayor Brian Blad said Friday he anticipates the city and its firefighters union will soon resolve a contract impasse, averting the need for a potentially contentious fact-finding process before a three-member board.
The city has already selected Marvin M. Smith, from Hawley Troxell in Idaho Falls, as its representative on the fact-finding board. The fire union has selected Ricky Walsh, a retired firefighter from Richland, Washington, as its representative.
If the sides go forward with a hearing, Smith and Walsh will jointly select a neutral third member.
The Idaho Department of Labor would make the choice if they couldn’t agree on someone.
The board’s recommendation would be nonbinding. The fire union said it would abide by any decision; Blad said the city would abide by a “reasonable” decision, but he would be shocked if a fact-finding hearing becomes necessary.
“I believe we’re going to get this taken care of, and I would be surprised if it goes much further,” Blad said.
During a Tuesday meeting, the city offered the firefighters a flat 4 percent raise — up from the 1 percent raise they offered at the start of negotiations in April and the 1.73 percent raise that was their second offer. Firefighters requested a 5.83 percent raise. They would like their base raise to be equal to the 2.5 percent raise general city employees are set to receive. The union is also seeking an additional increase to offset the fact that fire union members, unlike many other city workers, don’t receive additional “step” raises to keep employees at market rates as they gain seniority.
“We have an executive session next week to discuss the last negotiation so the City Council is aware of where both sides are and to give some direction,” Blad said. “I expect to have either an offer we will bring (to the fire union) or the council being comfortable with the offer that (the fire union) made.”
Blad said he would have a hard time abiding by any decision made by a fact-finding panel with no ties to the city.
Andy Moldenhauer, who heads Pocatello Firefighters Local 187, believes fact-finding would lead to hard feelings on both sides and could ultimately result in continued negotiations if the city were to reject the panel’s findings. He also hopes to avoid fact-finding.
“All we’re trying to do is get equal treatment,” Moldenhauer said. “We feel justified in that.”
Moldenhauer said the fire union and the city collaborated on a study to compare Pocatello fire union wages against surrounding communities, estimating his department is 22 percent behind the market. The study looked at seven departments with comparable populations, also offering emergency medical services transports, within a 500-mile radius.
The department is in the final year of a four-year contract, with wages left open for negotiation. Members have taken just a 1 percent raise throughout the three years combined. As a trade-off, the city allowed the department to leave the municipal insurance policy for a policy offered specifically for firefighters. It’s been insufficient, in Moldenhauer’s opinion.
“We’ve had more turnover in the last couple of years than we’ve had in our history,” Moldenhauer said.
He said the department has lost seven members during the course of the multi-year contract. In the past, he said members usually left only for personal reasons — not because of the allure of greener pastures elsewhere.
Moldenhauer said union members have also been disturbed about discussions among the mayor and council members regarding possible large pay raises for themselves. Moldenhauer hears a familiar ring in the arguments of the city leaders, who emphasize a study has found their own wages have fallen woefully behind market rates.
Blad said the city has prioritized “taking care” of all of its employees this year, and that will include the mayor and council. He wouldn’t take pay raises for the city’s elected leaders off the table, noting “they are under-compensated and need to be compensated correctly.”
But Blad credits the fire union members for always being responsive to the city’s needs in the past and remains optimistic that he, the council, firefighters and other city workers will ultimately be comfortable with the final outcome.