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Anger simmered among rank-and-file members of Toledo's safety forces Thursday as contract disputes between Mayor Mike Bell's administration and the city's main police and firefighter unions rumbled on.
About 70 firefighters marched from the Local 92 headquarters on Washington Street, downtown, to the city's Division of Environmental Services building on Erie Street. They stood outside holding placards as union representatives and city officials met inside for a hearing with an independent fact finder. The firefighters, who turned out for a similar hearing two weeks ago, said they consider the city's request for concessions unfair given signs of improvement in the local economy and what they called a heavy workload.
"We've taken on a ton more work to help the taxpayers," said longtime firefighter Tim Fisher, who listed the fire department's takeover of the Ottawa Hills fire service and added life squad and ambulance duties as factors contributing to increased work. "That's why we think this is crap that they want to cut our pay."
Union steward Glenn Hill said the fire department has the same manpower levels as it did two decades ago, even though the amount of work has increased.
"We're struggling under an extreme workload right now," he said. "We're not asking for the moon. We just want a fair representation for the amount of work that we're doing."
Mr. Hill said the city's request for concessions would amount to roughly a 14 percent cut in firefighter take-home pay, including a proposed increase in employee payments for health care and pensions. City officials, while reluctant to give specifics, have confirmed they are seeking concessions similar to those secured from other city unions, which have included pay freezes in addition to stepped up pension and health-care deductions.
The Bell administration maintains union concessions are key to helping the city balance its budget and avoid layoffs in personnel. Mr. Hill and other union members expressed skepticism with that assertion, pointing to increases in tax revenue and expected job creation at local auto plants and the soon-to-open Hollywood casino.
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"All the indications about the economy are showing there's a positive rebound right now," Mr. Hill said.
Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat, a leader in the city's negotiation efforts, did not return calls requesting comment Thursday. However, city officials and councilmen repeatedly stress the city's tax revenue are still well below prerecession levels and that Toledo has also been faced with revenue cuts from the state.
Thursday marked the second day of fact finding for the two sides, which last met Feb. 16. The hearing is set to continue Friday.
Meanwhile, the city is also embroiled in contract negotiations with its main police unit. Administration officials met for a mediation hearing Tuesday with the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association, but the two sides could not reach an agreement, union president Dan Wagner said. Fact-finding sessions have been scheduled for March 22 and 23, he said.
Mr. Wagner echoed many of the frustrations expressed by the firefighters, including an increased workload, shrinking personnel, and repeated city requests for concessions despite signs of economic improvement, which he said are leading to declining morale among the city's police force. Police numbers are down dramatically compared to a decade ago, he said.
"So our guys are basically doing double the work while the city is still wanting to come and take money away from us," he said.
"We gave in the time of need, we all know the city's improving, but they want to take more things away from us … when we have the lowest manpower in the state."
Councilman D. Michael Collins, a former police officer, said he understands some of the safety forces' concerns, but trusts in the legally established bargaining process to bring about a resolution that both sides can support.
"I can appreciate where the firefighters are coming from. However, in November, 2011, it was the wisdom of the voters at that time that the process works," he said, referring to the defeat of Senate Bill 5, an attempted state overhaul of collective bargaining law. "This is where the decisions are going to be made, not in the court of public opinion."
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272