By Steven Fletcher
After two years of choppy and often contentious negotiation, city administration and the firefighters union have settled the union's contract, with an overall 5.5 percent in pay hikes covering back to July 2010, but no other substantive changes regarding manning levels or other department structuring, city and union officials say.
While the contract offers a pay raise in line with other city unions, it rests any other changes on the shoulders of the next fire chief, Mayor Carolyn Kirk said in a prepared statement.
"Rather than enter into protracted and expensive arbitration proceedings ... the administration determined that the best opportunity to work through these issues and other needed structural changes rests with a new Fire Chief," Kirk said in a prepared statement. "The terms of the agreement are in parity with other city labor contracts, and provide for the first wage increase to the Fire Department in five years."
The union's contract expired in 2010 and firefighters have been working under its terms since that time, with negotiations over the last two years breaking down frequently.
The negotiations needed a state mediator, and were headed to arbitration. Talks fell apart in January over firefighters' so-called "discretionary days" off, and the chief's inability to manage them under current rules, according to an e-mail from the mayor. Discretionary days are essentially days off that are carried over from the previous year, union officials have said.
The union ratified a memorandum of agreement that settled the contract Thursday night, with much of the pay increases retroactive, said firefighters' union president Phil Bouchie. The Times wasn't able to obtain a copy of the memorandum of agreement as of Friday night.
Bouchie said the firefighters' ratification vote was unanimous, and noted that terms of the deal mirror the police patrolmen's union contract. Retroactively, it awards the department a 1.5 percent increase from July 2010, a 2 percent increase from July 2011 and another 2 percent increase for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1 and runs through June 30, 2013.
The agreement also adds another step to the step and track scale for the union, Bouchie said.
"It gives us the percentages they (other unions) got," he added.
Bouchie added that the agreement keeps the city from going into a costly arbitration process.
The contract, despite a state mediator aiding in negotiations, was on track for arbitration in December. But the union and city administration went back to the table for a new round in January.
Those talks fell through as well after the union rejected a city offer of more than $200,000 in raises in exchange for concessions on some of the union's so-called discretionary days.
The agreement, however, leaves in place the Fire Department's scheduling structure, with four shifts of 17 to 18 firefighters apiece. For each shift, the minimum staffing allowed by the contract is 14. At the most, five firefighters can be off on personal, or vacation time, during the same shift. But that doesn't count sick leave, bereavement, military service or fire academy training.
The availability and operation of the city's outlying fire stations is contingent on the department having 15 or more firefighters on for any available shift. An infusion of overtime money to allow the department to bring in extra firefighters on overtime when staffing dips below the minimum levels has allowed the West Gloucester fire station to remain open most of the time in recent weeks, but the Bay View station remains frequently closed and the Magnolia station, despite opening for two days last week, has rarely been open since last August.
The search for a new fire chief, meanwhile, is now in the hands of the local Search Committee, with two in-house candidate and five from outside Gloucester all vying as finalists for the post. The committee is expected to makes its choices and forward a list of finalists on to Kirk within the next week.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.