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Firefighters and Politicans

This past week, the city and the union representing Jacksonville’s firefighters reached an agreement that will cut firefighters pay by two percent and then freeze it for two years. However this will not result in any layoffs or demotions and the 26 new graduates of the fire academy will soon be on the job helping to keep us safe.

There were other concessions as well. Firefighters for the first time will be asked to contribute something to their own health insurance. Of course, that’s something to which private sector employees -- the ones that still get health insurance -- are very much accustomed.

This is a significant breakthrough. The city and its unions have been at loggerheads trying to work out a way to be fair to the workers, not cut public safety and other services while still finding a way to make some headway towards balancing the budget. And while some would say a pay cut is not a fair thing… a two percent cut is certainly preferable to a 100% cut.

According to the employment website “Indeed.com”, the average Jacksonville firefighter makes about $45,000 per year. That’s from a low of about $23,000 for a “Hotshot Wildland Firefighter” to $121,000 for a “Firefighter Senior Officer”. The coj.net website lists the base salary for a firefighter as $34,068 based on a 56 hour week (24hr on-48hr off=122 shift days/yr). As fire union president Randy Wise said on The Jacksonville Observer Radio show … these are the men and women who run into the burning building when everyone else is running the other way. They are certainly deserving of a decent wage.

Under ordinary circumstances, I don’t think anyone would ask such people to take a pay cut, but these are far from ordinary times, and the firefighters stepped up to the plate and did what was best for the city, and in an odd way for themselves. Most people, when faced with a small but still significant pay cut would rather take that than lose their job entirely.

The negotiators for the firefighters also agreed to a two-year wage freeze, at which point they would be restored to current levels. They will also pay $22 per month towards their individual health insurance, which is far less than nearly any private sector employee pays … if their employers offer it any longer.

So where does that leave the city? The numbers on how much the city will potentially save likely won’t be calculated until both the rank and file and the city council have an opportunity to vote on the plan. There will be significant savings, to be sure, but there is still a long way to go. Still it does set a precedent for continuing negotiations with the other city employee unions.

Pensions continue to be the 800 pound gorilla in the room. And there are other unions with which to negotiate pay and benefit packages. This agreement, it would seem, sets the stage for some of those of those other negotiations going forward, and could spell the difference in maintaining a level of service that we’ve come to expect from the city government. However, talks with the other bargaining units have reportedly broken down, and their futures now rest in the hands of a magistrate, and that’s something of a roll of the dice.

Mayor Peyton came into office saying he would run the city like a business, and that was a platform with which a lot of people seemed to agree. While it’s not always possible “run a city like a business,” there are certainly similarities. Labor negotiations are one, and any chief executive faced with a burgeoning gap between revenue and expenditures has to look at labor when looking at the bottom line. Millions of Americans have felt the sting of being part of that, both in terms of job loss and pay and benefit cuts.

Following the concessions made by the firefighters, Mayor Peyton and the City Council need to be sure they do everything the can to rein in spending. They owe that to those who have made the concessions. Most economic indicators continue to point to at least another year, or maybe more, of difficult economic times for Jacksonville and other cities across the nation. And if, at the end of the day, the package should be ratified by the rank and file and approved by the City Council… be sure to thank a fireman.

5 Responses »

  1. There wouldn't be an 800 pension gorilla if the city didn't take from the pensions to fund their millage rate decreases several years back.

    As always, good article Tom.

  2. These are jobs paid for with tax dollars. Property values are falling lower than the pants down below the butt of a street punk. Jobs are virtually nonexistant. Unemployment and under-employment is rampant. A 2% reduction in an average $45,000 salary ($3750 mo) and firemen paying $22 towards his health insurace does NOT cut it for the taxpayers. The REALITY is there'd be a line of men that'd stretch from downtown Jacksonville to Georgia willing to take a $30,000 fireman's job ($2500 mo). As for the health insurance let the firemen pay 50% of the cost. Like I said, there's 100's and 100's of men willing to play cards at the firehouse for $2500 a month. Mayor Peyton and the city fathers better open their eyes to the truth!

  3. We can beat the "past" to death as to what was done as opposed to what should have been done. Does Monday morning quarterbacking sound familiar?

    The problem is what do we do now, ergo a review of our past actions with a thought to correct the unrealistic labor provisions then considered possible. It is one thing to say, well I got mine and you the taxpayer has to pay. Perhaps one thing the union members forget, they are also tax payers. So subject to increased taxes to help pay their own salary/benefits. Doesn't make a lot of sense to most people. Sorta like taking money from your right hand pocket to fill the left hand pocket.

    Of course then you have the rest of us tax paying citizens of Jacksonville, many of us living under rather strained economic conditions. As to who is to blame, well that is something else. The point is, where we were supposed to come up with the additional necessary money? Tell me to conserve or further cut my life style merely to guarantee a union member's style, I don't think so.

    This old saw about the dangers of my job and similar. Last I heard you are a volunteer.

    The only realistic course is meaningful concessions by the unions, perhaps temporary but probably permanent.

  4. If I remember correctly, those who provide our city with safety and security agreed to frozen wages for (was it?) five years to gain this attractive, but not exorbitant retirement package. While everyone involved must understand that the monies that were to be used to finance the retirement fund is gone, that doesn't mean that the city doesn't have some responsibility to honor their agreements.

    The Firemen and Policemen are just as responsible for the depleted funds as every other citizen and politician who squandered the cities saving, and should therefore share in the responsibility to bring the city back to solvency. The Mayor, and the City Council should revisit the Jacksonville Journey and lower it's expectations and goals. The Fire and Policemen have done well in this agreement. The citizens of Jacksonville should expect no more fees, taxes, levies, charges, or whtever else politicians can think of re-naming a tax; and live with a few potholes until we can all work to make this city solvent again.

    No more over-paid Aids, no more double-dipping the retirement fund, and no more palm trees in blighted areas to attract businesses that will fail because palm trees don't products or services. You want businesses in those areas? Get rid of the criminals.

    It's time to joint these public servants and tighten our collective belts a notch or two.

    Jim Davis

  5. There is no silver bullet to our budget issues, it is a problem that is going to require everybody's involvement to fix. Employees could be given a choice on healthcare, something like "contribute 25% of the cost for the same benefits as today", or "pay 10% of the cost and get a higher deductible." Or even let them opt out and get a % of that savings added to their pay as a "cash out" bonus, then they're on their own for healthcare.

    If they don't want any reduction in pension benefits then change the qualifiers from a minimum 20 years to the earlier of a minimum retirement age of 65 (w/20 years service) or 30 years service.

    The Mayor pledged to run this City like a business. NOW is the time to finally live up to that promise.