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Toledo's main firefighters' union and City Council sealed a deal on a new, three-year contract Thursday, ending a somewhat contentious negotiation process that pitted Mayor Mike Bell, a former fire chief, against members of the department he once ran.
Local 92 union members voted narrowly in favor of the agreement, which will cut firefighter take-home pay about 4 percent by August, 2014. The cut will come from the gradual elimination of city contributions toward firefighter pension costs, often referred to as "pension pickup," which will be tempered by pay raises during the last two years of the contract.
Union leaders said their memberships' feelings about the deal were mixed, and the agreement was the subject of "riotous meetings" in the days preceding the vote. However, several members expressed relief the negotiation process was over and said the contract was not as bad as they had feared.
"The thing with negotiations is both parties should walk away disappointed," union President Wayne Hartford said Thursday. "We're not exactly happy with the results, but it's something we can live with."
Toledo City Council unanimously approved the deal Thursday afternoon after the announcement of the union's decision. Councilmen Lindsay Webb and Phil Copeland did not attend the meeting.
City Finance Director Patrick McLean said it will save the city more than half a million dollars over the life of the contract.
Mayor Bell applauded the deal, which he said includes concessions important to keeping the city's budget balanced.
"I think it's a fair outcome for everybody involved. We didn't get everything we wanted, they didn't get everything they wanted, and typically that's a pretty good contract," the mayor said. "I do appreciate that the firefighters helped us find middle ground on this."
Key to the city's savings is the elimination of its "pension pickup" obligations, a benefit firefighters negotiated in prior years in lieu of wage increases, the union said. Once the pickup ends, firefighters will contribute 10 percent of their salaries toward pension costs. Those affected by the change will receive a one-time lump sum payment of $1,250 in April.
The contract also freezes wages until July, 2013. After that, the firefighters will receive a 2 percent pay increase, followed by an additional 3.5 percent wage increase in August, 2014.
Health-insurance premiums, which have been pushed up recently for other bargaining units, will remain the same for the firefighters, who will retain their own health and welfare trust fund. The health-insurance issue was a contentious one during the negotiation process, as the city sought to bring the union members into its own health-care system.
The deal implements a stricter new sick-time policy that authorizes superiors to pay home visits to firefighters who call in ill, starting with the first day. Anyone found to be abusing sick time faces a 15-day suspension, followed by a 30-day suspension for a second offense. Firefighters would be fired if cited a third time. Officials said the measure is aimed at cutting down on sick-time abuse and reducing overtime costs.
Local 92 members feel the policy is a little too stringent, however, Mr. Hartford said.
Firefighters who were approached Thursday by The Blade expressed a range of feelings about the new contract.
"I'm glad it's over with, I'm serious. It's so stressful having to worry about your wages, your health plan," said Jason Mercurio, who's been a firefighter for more than a decade and said the cut in his take-home pay would affect his family's finances significantly.
"Every three years, we have to go through this," he said. "I'm just glad it's done."
Dan Lietaert, 41, and coworker Jesse Garcia, 30, said they were not entirely happy with the agreement nor with the city's approach to the negotiation process, but said they felt the contract could have been worse.
"I'm relieved I'm not being gutted and left out in the street," Mr. Lietaert said. "But nobody's ever happy taking a pay cut."
Both said they have felt under siege as public workers since the battle last year over Senate Bill 5, which aimed to curtail collective bargaining rights and now with the city's demands for contract concessions.
"We're not the enemy. We've worked with the administration over time. I don't feel like we're unfairly compensated for what we do," Mr. Lietaert said. "I don't think the public realizes what we actually do."
For Mr. Mercurio, Thursday's approval sent a positive message to the public that Local 92 is willing to compromise.
"I know that we had to come to an agreement on something, just to show everybody we are willing to do our part," he said. "I am more than willing to do my part for the greater good of the city."
Councilman George Sarantou praised Local 92 for what he called "stepping up to the plate."
The city's tax revenues have been hit hard since the recession, and although they are starting to rise, the administration is still under financial strain, he said.
"It bodes well for the financial side, it meets the goals that have been established in the budget," Mr. Sarantou said of the deal. "It's not a perfect agreement for either side, but it helps us over the next three years."
With the Local 92 contract behind them, city administrators will turn their attention to the main police officers' union, the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association.
The two sides are scheduled to meet for fact-finding sessions on March 22 and 23.
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: email@example.com or 419-724-6272