By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
A tentative agreement has been reached between the city and the firefighters’ union that would save Denver $3.2 million next year.
Facing a budget shortfall of $120 million, city officials were forced to call the Denver Fire Fighters Union Local 858 back to the negotiating table to craft a contract that works with the city’s current fiscal woes.
Over the next two years, firefighters would forgo $7 million worth of salary and health benefits in order to keep firehouses open. Union members must still approve the agreement; a vote is expected Sept. 1 and 2.
Firefighters would forgo $3.2 million in salary next year, and another $3.2 million in 2011. Another $600,000 would be saved through modified health care benefits.
“Fire safety is very, very important to us, it was critical that we worked on this to keep firehouses open,” a tired Aaron S. Jonke, secretary-treasurer of Local 858, told the Denver Daily News at his north Broadway office Thursday. “We didn’t want a situation where public safety could have been endangered.”
Union and city officials worked through the night Wednesday before coming to the agreement early Thursday morning.
Mayor John Hickenlooper was fast to applaud the union for its understanding.
“Denver Firefighters Local 858 has once again stepped up and helped the city deal with the current fiscal crisis,” said the mayor. “We recognize the hardship this agreement may put on firefighters and their families, and we are grateful for the public service firefighters provide to our community.”
Hickenlooper said the cuts would allow the city to avoid laying off firefighters, which could lead to public safety concerns.
Union officials acknowledge the public safety aspect, but point out that the concessions would come at “great personal sacrifice” to the firefighters themselves. Through 2011, firefighters would be sacrificing nearly $10,000 each.
Jonke shrugged off the notion that it, “is what it is,” pointing out that during an economic downturn, the last thing firefighters want is to make salary concessions.
Pat Rhoades, president of Local 858, said she expects the union membership to approve the agreement.
“Denver firefighters have always been active members of their community and once again I believe they will step up to make sure that all of the firehouses and fire apparatus remain open,” said Rhoades. “Denver firefighters believe strongly that public safety should never be jeopardized and our sacrifices once again prove that we are always there when you need us.”
Negotiations with police continue
Meanwhile, the city is still in contract negotiations with the police union. City officials also asked the Denver Police Protective Association to come back to the negotiating table when they learned in July that the city’s budget shortfall was actually $120 million, not $70 million.
Back in March, the police union had agreed to $2.3 million in concessions, but facing a fiscal crisis, city officials asked to open the contract again.
“As of this moment in time, we don’t have anything yet, but we’re working on something,” said Vince Gavito, president of the Denver Police Protective Association.
Firefighters in April agreed to nearly $1.4 million in concessions for this year and agreed to an additional $1.4 million in 2010. Union officials say the latest round of concessions brings the total through 2012 to $8.4 million.
“Firefighters value their role as being an instrumental part of the community and know that keeping all of the firehouses open will preserve public safety and keep firefighters a little safer in an already dangerous profession,” said Jonke. “These concessions will eliminate the need for firefighter layoffs.”
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters