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Firefighters’ Pay Up as Benefits Slip

Laguna firefighters battle a blaze in a downtown store last March.

Laguna firefighters battle a blaze in a downtown store last March.

The City Council ratified a four-year contract Tuesday awarding firefighters a 4.5 percent pay raise that nevertheless fails to completely offset the rate increase in their own contributions to retirement benefits.

The pact ends nearly a year of contentious negotiations with the Orange County Firefighters Association Local 3631. The city expects to save about $175,000 over the term of the agreement, said the city’s finance director, Gavin Curran.

The city and the firefighters began negotiations last April, but failed to reach an agreement before the previous contract expired in June. Deliberations continued until October, when firefighters rejected the contract then proposed and city officials declared an impasse.

At the time, John Latta, a spokesman for Laguna’s firefighters and Local 3631, called the offer a “take-away contract,” since it asked for greater retirement contributions and offered nothing in return.

Since the city refused to enter mediation to resolve differences as they had in the past, the firefighters chose to take advantage of a state law that allows an employee organization to request fact-finding.

At a hearing in January, the parties finally came to terms.

Under the new contract, the union agrees that all members will increase their Calpers retirement contributions nearly to 12 percent, flattening out variances in the amounts firefighters contributed due to different hiring dates and different prevailing contribution rates. Members currently paying in 4.5 percent and 9 percent, respectively, will now increase their contributions to 12 percent by January 2016; others affected by the California Public Pension Retirement Reform Act formula will continue to contribute at the current mandated rate of 11.5 percent. In addition, the new deal means the firefighters will also eventually be responsible for making up a drop in the city’s contribution to their benefits

Latta said under the terms of the contract, Laguna’s members are “probably the only firefighters out there paying that much.” The 41-employee department’s $4.3 million budget is the third largest expenditure in the city’s general fund after public works and police.

All firefighters covered by the contract will receive an incremental 4.5 percent salary hike, with a 1 percent increase effective this month, and two subsequent 1.75 percent raises in January 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Firefighters last received an 11-percent cost of living pay raise in 2006 and a 5-percent increase each succeeding year up to 2010. They received no pay raises when their last two-year contract was negotiated in September 2011.

“Probably neither side got exactly what they wanted,” said Latta of the new contract. He hopes that despite the frustration and concerns experienced throughout the lengthy negotiating process, “we can put all that behind us” and begin addressing the fire safety and emergency concerns of the community.

Union members voting on the contract approved it two to one, he said, with some still chaffing at concessions.

“I think we can all agree that the realities in the state have changed over the past five to six years,” he said, adding, “some of those realities are hard for people to accept.”

 

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