Six months after their last contract expired, Lexington firefighters ratified a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the city last week.
That's one contract down, five to go.
The city still has to negotiate two contracts with police, two with Fayette County jail employees and one with fire department majors. All of the contracts have expired, but negotiators don't seem to be in any hurry to wrap things up.
The city probably is more motivated because it is trying to save $5.6 million in its collective bargaining contracts to shore up an estimated $27 million revenue shortfall. But that means the contracts — which will cover the unions for three years after they are ratified and signed by the mayor — are not likely to be as lucrative for public safety employees as their current ones.
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The public safety unions are currently covered by the "evergreen clauses" in their contracts, meaning the old contracts remain in effect until they're replaced by new ones.
"The general consensus is at this point we're not losing anything" by staying with expired contracts a while longer, said Randy Jones, president of the Bluegrass Community Corrections Officers Association, which represents lieutenants and captains at the jail, many of whom are near retirement.
While specific negotiating points are not public record until the contracts are ratified, it's likely that each of the unions will be asked for sacrifices similar to the ones firefighters have agreed to make.
Firefighters agreed to a two-year wage freeze and reductions in vacation and holiday leave time. The number of firefighters allowed to take time off per day was reduced from 24 to 21, and the city will pay $100 less per firefighter for health insurance.
Cuts to public safety, which accounts for about 50 percent of the city's nearly $275 million general fund budget, are a necessity, city officials say.
"In tough times like these, everybody has to make sacrifices," said Geoff Reed, senior advisor to Mayor Jim Gray.
Reed said the firefighters were willing to make those sacrifices to prevent up to 50 layoffs.
While raises for other city employees have been stagnant during the past several years, public safety employees have gotten raises continuously since fiscal year 2009, thanks to collective bargaining. Non-union employees did not get raises last year, but firefighters received 6 percent raises, police 2.5 percent and corrections officers 0.5 percent, according to data released to the Herald-Leader by the city.
The two-year wage freeze in the firefighter contract will help prevent that pay gap from growing until the city sees better economic times, Reed said.
"The top priority service that a community receives is public safety, so obviously the greatest concern among the general public is when reductions have to occur in public safety," he said.
But Reed said the city and firefighters "have walked that tightrope" between saving money and keeping the city safe "very effectively."
Getting it done
City officials and union leaders say the time lapse in the remaining contract negotiations isn't a result of any particular conflict. Collective bargaining negotiations are time-consuming by definition, and this round of negotiations is even more so because of the strict budget.
It's not clear how close the parties are to reaching agreements.
"There is no timetable," said city spokeswoman Susan Straub.
Straub said there also was no estimation of when negotiations could be finished.
Police, whose contracts expired June 30, didn't begin negotiating until early July, said Mike Sweeney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4, which represents the police department.
The fire department's contracts expired March 31. Firefighters, lieutenants and captains ratified their contract Sept. 22, but majors, who operate under another contract, are still negotiating.
Even though the firefighters ratified their contract, the process isn't finished. The Urban County Council, which voted in July to give itself authority to accept or reject future collective bargaining contracts, has not reviewed the firefighters' contract, and it has not been signed by the mayor. Council members probably will review the contract next week, Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said.
If they reject the contract, it could send the mayor back to the negotiating table.
Chris Bartley, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 526, said he hopes the council reviews the contract quickly.
The new contract includes $2.3 million in savings for fiscal year 2010 and $4.7 million over the life of the contract.
"The longer they delay, the longer it could potentially not save the city money," Bartley said.
Of all the public safety unions, contracts covering jail employees are the longest overdue.
Two contracts for the jail — one for corrections officers and sergeants and another for lieutenants and captains — expired in June 2010. Union leaders notified the city they were ready to begin negotiations in February 2009, Jones said.
Once the city responded and negotiations began, it wasn't long before the parties reached an impasse over health care, Jones said. The city wanted to cut $100 from its contribution to health care costs for corrections officers — the same concession firefighters agreed to in their new contract.
But Jones said corrections officers thought they had more to lose. Corrections officers have received the smallest raises of any of the public safety sectors for three of the past five years. The jail has the highest attrition rates of any public safety sector and the lowest pay, he said.
For example, under the previous contracts, base salaries for police and firefighters are about $34,600 a year. Starting corrections officers make $27,852 a year.
"There wasn't a whole lot of fat to be trimmed off our contract," Jones said.
The health care impasse was complicated during the summer when jail employees split into two unions — a move that caused corrections officers and sergeants to start negotiations from scratch.
In July, corrections officers and sergeants decertified the National Coalition for Public Safety Officers, which has represented them for years, and joined the Fraternal Order of Police Town Branch Lodge No. 83. The lieutenants and captains stayed with the public safety officers coalition.
Sgt. Kevin Johnson, president of Lodge No. 83, said the switch was made because "the membership felt that we were not getting the representation we needed" from the Communications Workers of America, of which the National Coalition of Public Safety Officers is an affiliate.
He also said members were concerned about allegations that funds were being misappropriated by the CWA.
Though they had to start from scratch, Johnson said that the officers' and sergeants' proposals are about 90 percent prepared and that he hopes it won't take more than a month for the contract to be ratified.
"We're just waiting for the city to get more dates available to meet," he said.