Pocatello police and fire department crews respond to an accident in this 2017 file photo. Pocatello's police and fire unions are now in contract negotiations with the city. 

POCATELLO — Leaders with the city’s police and fire unions say they’ve reached agreements on several minor issues but still have a wide gulf to bridge regarding some of the major topics in their ongoing contract negotiations.

Union officials say morale has suffered and many of their members have either left recently for other departments or are currently looking for jobs elsewhere.

Heather Buchanan, the city’s human resources director, has served on the bargaining unit during past negotiations and is in her first year as lead negotiator.

“I’m optimistic about negotiations,” she said. “We have a good dialogue going on right now and we’re trading a lot of ideas back and forth.”

Leaders of both unions argue their compensation packages have fallen well behind their peers in surrounding communities, and they’re hopeful that the new contract will help remedy the situation.

“What we proposed was moving to a step scale that gets us equivalent with our comparable departments,” said Andy Moldenhauer, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 187. “We’re about 15 percent behind.”

Moldenhauer said under the union’s proposal, 10 pay steps would be created to ultimately reach a level playing field, and it would take five years just to get caught up to where other departments are today.

State statute grants firefighters the right to collectively bargain and allows 30 days from the start of the process before plans can move forward to bring in a neutral fact-finding commission. The commission’s recommendations, however, are not binding.

“We’ve started that process. We’ve already reached the window,” Moldenhauer said. “... We’ve reached agreement on several of the smaller issues. On the larger issues we feel like we’re pretty far apart and it’s going to be a long road toward having an agreement.”

Moldenhauer said most of the proposals on the table have been “clerical and formatting” issues simply requiring the sides to clean up the language. Vacation policies, however, have been another sticking point. Currently, the city allows three firefighters to be on vacation at a time.

Moldenhauer noted staffing has increased, and the union is asking for a fourth slot.

The city made a counter offer granting the fourth slot but reducing vacation accrual and carryover.

The city and the fire department are also at odds about a municipal proposal to eliminate the department’s emergency vehicle technician position. The worker is certified to work on fire trucks, thereby reducing down time for emergency vehicles, Moldenhauer said.

Regarding the police department, the city offered to raise pay for veteran officers and patrolmen by 3 percent and increasing from a six-step pay scale to 10 steps. Corporals and sergeants, however, were offered only a 2 percent raise, with the six-step scale retained.

Sgt. Val Wadsworth, president of Portneuf Valley Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 13, fears the proposal would reduce the incentive for officers and patrolmen to pursue promotions. He’d like for corporals and sergeants to receive the same increases as veteran officers and patrolmen.

Wadsworth noted the city has also proposed to strip away education incentives. For example, members of the department who hold a bachelor’s degree earn an extra $250 per year.

“We have quite a few with bachelor’s and a whole bunch with master’s,” Wadsworth said.

Wadsworth said morale has been low lately, and the contract negotiations haven’t helped matters.

“I was hoping for a little smoother negotiating process,” Wadsworth said.

According to Wadsworth, 10 veteran officers have applied to join the Idaho State Police. He said one officer has taken the test and the others are waiting to learn the results of contract negotiations. Several other workers have applied to join the staff that investigates white-collar crimes for the Idaho Attorney General’s Office, he said.

Wadsworth, who serves as the department’s sergeant in charge of training, argued it’s more costly to train new recruits than to take the necessary steps to retain veterans.

“I hope we can come to some sort of an agreement to maintain our veteran officers,” he said.

Buchanan declined to respond to the morale concerns, noting the unions have the best understanding of their own morale because they work together on a daily basis. Nonetheless, she believes there’s a good chance the city and its police and fire unions will work through negotiations amicably and she looks forward to wrapping up the process.

“You definitely don’t speed negotiations along,” Buchanan said. “Both sides need to feel like they get their information on the table.”

During the city’s 2019 negotiations, union members and leaders voiced frustrations about the city offering modest pay raises to workers despite having more sizable raises on the table for the City Council and mayor. That apparently won’t be an issue this cycle.

During a recent budget meeting, Buchanan said the council’s direction was to hold pay for elected officials flat.