San Jose Firefighters Hopeful Ahead Of City Council Contract Vote

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San Jose firefighters at fire and gas explosion on Edwards St. 2007 (Craig Allyn Rose)

San Jose firefighters at fire and gas explosion on Edwards St. 2007 (Craig Allyn Rose)

SAN JOSE (KCBS) – The San Jose City Council was expected to formally weigh in on a proposed contract with the city’s firefighters at its Tuesday meeting, one which called for wage concessions, operational changes, and a reduction in health insurance benefits for the men and women who staff San Jose’s firehouses.

The outcome of the council’s vote was by no means guaranteed, however.

Councilman Sam Liccardo threw a bit of a curveball in the negotiations last week, submitting a proposal Friday that the vote on the tentative deal reached with firefighters be delayed, because he felt the concessions weren’t enough and more negotiations were warranted on pension reform.

Earlier this month, San Jose firefighters voted 95 percent in favor of the proposed contract, which included a 10 percent cut in salary. Mayor Chuck Reed had stressed that the salary cuts were crucial to San Jose’s efforts to close its massive budget deficit, which exceeded $100 million. Reed also suggested that the firefighters’ support of the wage concessions could help set the tone for productive negotiations with other city workers’ unions.

“Our members are experiencing short sales, foreclosures, gas prices are going up and this is going to be a definite financial strain on the membership,” conceded Jeff Welch, president of the San Jose firefighters’ union, Local 230. “But they recognize that this 10% concession, and other benefit concessions, were necessary.”

Welch expressed surprise over Liccardo’s proposal.

“It’s confusing and frustrating,” he conceded. “At this point we’ve given them everything they’ve offered. We hope that the council majority will still adopt our proposals.”

He suggested there were other ways for Liccardo to help shore up the city’s coffers.

“There’s free federal money of about $15 million,” Welch said, referring to a Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency program, known as the SAFER grant – Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response. One portion of SAFER funding is specifically earmarked for rehiring laid-off firefighters. “We’re hoping that this contract helps the city get into a place that makes it amenable to take that grant, which would bring back 49 firefighters that were laid off last year and replace about 2 to 3 engine companies.

Reed, like Welch, was hopeful that the firefighters’ contract would be approved Tuesday, despite Liccardo’s proposal – and his own concerns about soaring pensions costs.

“We continue to talk to the firefighters about other concessions and other ways to save money in the department because we don’t want to lay off any more firefighters. I don’t want to lay off any police officers either, but we’re facing the same problem with the Police Department,” Reed warned. “Retirement costs are just skyrocketing.”

However, Reed did not share Welch’s optimism about the potential to rehire laid-off firefighters.

“Unfortunately, we have not been able to bring back any of the firefighters we laid off. Last year, we did not get a contract with the firefighters so we laid off 49 firefighters,” Reed explained. “Unfortunately, even with the concessions the firefighters have offered this year, we’re unlikely to avoid shrinking the department. It will certainly shrink by attrition. Whether or not there’s enough attrition to avoid layoffs, I think remains to be seen.”

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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