Vancouver fire station to reopen

City accepts federal grant, approves new labor contract with union

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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In a last minute twist, the Vancouver City Council Tuesday night approved a labor contract with its firefighters’ union and agreed to accept a $2.3 million federal grant that will reopen Fire Station 6 on Northeast 112th Avenue.

The Burton station, which closed due to budget cuts on Jan. 1, should be operational by late October or early November, Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina said. The council’s decision came not a moment too soon — the city had to accept the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant by Sept. 1.

Vancouver and its largest firefighting union — IAFF Local 452 — also settled on a four-year contract that includes no cost of living raises for two years, followed by a 3.7 percent increase in 2012 and a 2 percent increase in 2013. It also took no cost of living increase in its 2009 bargaining agreement.

Union members have been working under the terms of their previous contract, which expired at the end of 2009, while leaders worked on a new agreement.

The city council, before unanimously approving the contract, called it a model for collective bargaining.

The agreement includes what city leaders called a “notably innovative” agreement on health care: The union’s approximately 170 members will no longer be on the city’s health plan. Instead, the city will pay what it currently contributes for health care, $1,321 a month per employee, into a trust that will be managed by the union, which will then contract out their own health care services.

The contract shows the city will increase that contribution by 5 percent in 2012 and 2013 — about half the cost of the double-digit projected increases in the city’s health care plan.

“It provides certainty on what our costs are for the health care structure,” City Manager Eric Holmes said. “It’s an innovative approach that allows the union to set their benefit needs.”

The raises in 2012 and 2013 will cost $1.7 million, while the health care payment increases will be $400,000, but both figures fit within the city’s budget resources, Vancouver Budget and Planning Manager Natasha Ramras said.

Councilor Larry Smith noted recent strife between labor and government around the country and said that the deal reached this week is an example of how negotiations can work.

“It’s going to be business a little differently,” he said. “I’m pleased with the process as we went through it.”

It long appeared that the city and the union were at an impasse: The local had asked for an 8 percent salary raise, while the city seemed wary of establishing a health care trust like the union requested. The sides had been set to appear before a state arbitrator until Tuesday’s agreement.

With the union contract squared away, the council then moved forward to accept the SAFER grant.

The 13 firefighters to staff Station 6 at 3216 N.E. 112th Ave. have been hired and will start training on Sept. 6, Molina said.

The money will pay for the salaries of 13 firefighters for two years, but also stipulates that Vancouver keeps the same number of firefighters for the duration of the grant, meaning any budget shortfalls would have to be borne by other already eviscerated departments. The city council had stalled on taking the grant until it knew what its labor costs with the union would be.

Holmes pointed out that the money only keeps the station open for two years, and without changes, the city will be back where it was when the station closed.

“We’re restoring service for two years with one-time money,” he said. “We need to use that time wisely.”

Federal ‘Band-Aid’

Councilor Jack Burkman agreed that Vancouver needs to address its broken business model, but also said he was happy to take the federal money this time around.

“It’s a Band-Aid, courtesy of the federal government,” Burkman said. “But we’ve wounded a neighborhood and now we need a Band-Aid.”

After the council unanimously agreed to take the SAFER grant, the audience — largely made up of firefighters and their supporters — applauded, and Councilor Jeanne Harris let out a small “yay!”

“I want to say how happy I am,” she said. “This is an opportunity to move forward and create energy. … I appreciate the fire union for sitting down and working so hard on making this a really good contract for both sides.”

Union President Mark Johnston said the contract benefits the community, the taxpayers and the workers.

“We’re problem solvers at work and on the fire scene,” Johnston said. “We come to the collective bargaining process with the same attitude. I’m glad it worked out. It’s a great example of the collective bargaining process working out the way it should.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall