SLO firefighters agree to give up pay raises for four years

San Luis Obispo firefighters will forgo pay increases for four years, pay their full pension contribution and begin a two-tier pension plan, according to a tentative agreement.

The four-year contract, ratified Monday night by the San Luis Obispo Firefighters Association with “overwhelming” support, comes after months of closed-door negotiations between the city and the union.

Erik Baskin, union president, said the agreement provides the one thing that members wanted: stability.

“Union members wanted a long-term agreement that provided stability for their families, protected staffing levels, which protects our health and safety and the public’s best interest,” Baskin said.

The City Council is expected to approve the agreement March 6.

The city says the four-year deal translates into a savings of $433,700 starting in July and increasing to $520,000 annually in July 2013.

Negotiations with the city’s unions have been ongoing since September. All union contracts except for police management expired in December.

The firefighters union is the only employee group to have reached a consensus with the city, aside from an agreed $807,000 cut in annual pay and benefits to the city’s top managers and unrepresented employees in December.

The city is negotiating about $3.1 million in employee compensation cuts, or 6.8 percent per employee, as a way to balance its current two-year budget.

Under the new agreement, the fire union will pay 7.5 percent of the member contribution to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System effective July, and an additional 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent starting in July 2013. That cost was previously paid by the city.

The two-tier pension plan, which goes into effect for all employees hired after July 2012, changes the pension formula for new hires to 3 percent at age 55 — an increase of five years from the current formula.

Firefighters have also agreed that the city will not increase its health care contribution through December 2015.

“We are hopeful that as the economy recovers and the city’s budget gets better, it will be different in four years,” Baskin said. He said the agreement is an important step in moving forward after the police and fire unions lost a fierce battle with city leaders last year. A ballot measure was passed by a landslide vote eliminating binding arbitration as a negotiating tool.

Yet the tension still exists. For the second year in a row, the police and fire unions have declined to attend a longstanding annual appreciation luncheon sponsored by a committee of local business leaders and assisted by the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

Union leaders boycotted the event for the first time last year in the throes of the special election to show union members’ displeasure over public attacks by chamber leaders.

Those feelings have not dissipated.

“We are not saying the event is over permanently,” Baskin said. “There needs to be some healing that takes place and relationships need to be mended first.”

Three major employee groups, with contracts that expire in December, remain at the negotiating table with the city: the police union, battalion chiefs in the Fire Department, and the general employees union.

The city has agreed to uphold the terms of the expired agreements until new contracts are agreed to or legally required impasse resolution procedures are exhausted, said Monica Irons, human resources director.