Uncertainty persists as firefighters union rejects latest contract offer

Photo courtesy Fire District !.
Photo courtesy Fire District !.

Despite an agreement hammered out over the past 18 months by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 1828 and the Board of Commissioners of Snohomish County Fire District 1, the union membership voted last week to reject the proposed contract. The prospect of an additional potentially-protracted delay in arriving at a new agreement means jurisdictions that contract with Fire District 1 for fire and related services are faced with heightened uncertainty about how to plan for and ultimately pay for these.

Fire District 1 provides fire protection and related services to nearly 200,000 residents in the communities of unincorporated south Snohomish County and the three partner cities of Brier, Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace. These three cities individually contract with Fire District 1 to serve their jurisdictions. This is a major line item in their respective budgets, so local officials have been closely watching the labor negotiations for indications of how a new labor agreement might affect city finances and possibly their relationship with FD 1.

Mountlake Terrace has a cap on the amount it pays for service from Fire District 1. Interim City Manager Scott Hugill says the net cost for service from Fire District 1 is less than if the city continued with its own fire department.

Fire District 1 began its contract with Mountlake Terrace in 2005. It has saved Mountlake Terrace money because of the number of resources available to the district that the city was paying for separately before contracting with the district, Hugill said.

Not all cities have a cap like Mountlake Terrace. The issue of cost uncertainty in Edmonds came to a head in August 2014 when Fire District 1 presented the city with an unexpected $1.6 million bill to cover two years of back pay for its union workers, more than $300,000 more than Edmonds had projected. While the city ultimately agreed to pay the bill, it set Edmonds on the path of closely examining its relationship with Fire District 1, including the progress of labor negotiations, to help it avoid similar surprises in the future.

As part of the effort to gain more certainty, Edmonds pursued having its own non-voting representative at the labor negotiating table to help keep the city informed about the progress of contract talks. While this did not happen, Edmonds Finance Director Scott James told My Edmonds News that “we receive updates on the on-going labor talks. I speak with their finance director at least once a month and the FD 1 Fire Chief updates the Mayor as new information becomes available.”

Meanwhile, it appears that after a year and a half of negotiations, the union and the Fire District are back to square one.

“The Board of Commissioners is surprised and disappointed that the union membership voted to reject the contract negotiated by union and District negotiators,” said Fire District 1 spokesperson Leslie Hynes. Hynes noted that “the bargaining that produced the proposed contract went on for 18 months; there were 22 meetings, including 17 mediation sessions under the auspices of the Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC), the state labor agency.”

In a statement issued late Friday, the union said that it will “continue to bargain in good faith to achieve a contract that is acceptable to its members.” Noting that IAFF Local 1828 would prefer to negotiate at the local level rather than allow a third party to mandate the final conditions, the statement went on to say that the union continues “to stand for a fair agreement consistent with comparable fire departments in the region.”

But this will take time. And until an agreement is reached, the partner cities of Edmonds, Mountlake Terrace and Brier are left in a holding pattern, not knowing the size of the bill they will face for FD 1 services. Edmonds’ Scott James summed it up: “Until the labor contract is settled and the costs are known, Edmonds will continue to monitor the situation as best we can and plan accordingly.”

— By Larry Vogel

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