Lexington firefighters ratify three-year contract with city

By a 308-99 vote, Lexington firefighters on Wednesday ratified a three-year contract with the city.

The contract, which now goes to the Urban County Council for review, is expected to bring an estimated $4.7 million in savings over the three years. The savings are in comparison with the firefighters' previous contract with the city, said Susan Straub, spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Gray.

The union agreed to a two-year wage freeze and other pay concessions. Firefighters will see a pay increase in the third year of the contract.

The union also agreed to reduce city health-insurance costs by $100 per firefighter per month for the first year of the agreement. The city pays a certain amount for each employee's benefit pool amount; that amount can be spent on health, dental or long-term disability insurance. The $100 reduction will come from that pool amount.

The contract also includes reductions in vacation and holiday leave time, plus a reduction in extra pay for holidays for two years.

The city, on the other hand, agreed not to lay off any firefighters. Gray said in a statement that without the financial concessions made in the contract agreement, as many as 50 firefighters would have been laid off.

The agreement also ensures two years' worth of paramedic training classes and staffing for emergency medical services.

The total cost of the contract was not available Wednesday night, Straub said.

Lt. Chris Bartley, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 526, said in an interview that the contract "is a sign of the times."

"It's something that had to be done," Bartley said. "Is it my favorite thing in the world to bring bad news to my members? No. But we recognize the economic situation of the city and the country. We came to the plate and we sacrificed. We're looking to protect jobs and we demand that the city continue to protect the citizens by keeping the fire stations open and the ambulances running and everything else.

"We're not the greedy union people that everybody makes us out to be," Bartley added.

Gray, who was involved in the contract negotiations, thanked union members for helping the city reduce costs.

"I appreciate their willingness to sacrifice for the common good," Gray said in a press release announcing the contract's approval.

The contract ratification comes as the city faces serious financial problems, including its fourth consecutive year of flat or declining revenue.

In July, Gray used his line-item veto to cut $889,612 from the fiscal 2012 budget approved by the council. His vetoes were the first successful vetoes of line items in the 37-year history of merged government.

In addition, the council adopted a $274 million budget for 2012 with $9 million in savings.

The new contract covers 488 firefighters, lieutenants and captains. Voting on the agreement began Monday and concluded Wednesday.

The city continues to negotiate with unions representing the Division of Police and the Division of Community Corrections, which are operating on expired collective bargaining contracts.

It's unclear when those negotiations will conclude.

"We're making progress, but we're still a ways away," said Mike Sweeney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4.

Lexington's annual spending on police and fire services, including bonds to fortify the city's troubled police and fire pension fund, has doubled since 2000, to $123 million. Police and fire now get close to half the city budget, up from 33 percent a decade ago.

Collective bargaining with police and fire unions started in 2005.

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