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Springs firefighters look to petition a collective bargaining measure

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Colorado Springs firefighters have the lowest salaries of any metro department in the state and the fewest firefighters per capita. That means overtime has skyrocketed, forcing firefighters to routinely work on their normal days off. At the same time, they need newer equipment and facilities.

Colorado Springs Professional Firefighters Association Local 5 president Dave Noblitt says that's why Local 5 wants to ask voters to be recognized as a collective bargaining unit. Although City Council could refer a ballot measure to voters, Noblitt says Local 5 doesn't expect Council to welcome collective bargaining, thus it's taking the other route. Local 5 has already completed the first step to petition a ballot measure onto a future election ballot for voters to approve: The group turned in signatures from 80 percent of firefighters — 75 percent is required by state law— to the City Clerk's Office on June 21.

The maneuver is allowed under Senate Bill 25, the Colorado Firefighter Safety Act, approved by the 2013 Colorado General Assembly. Since then, every other major metro fire department (Denver, Fort Collins, Aurora and Pueblo) has obtained collective bargaining status, Noblitt says.

But Springs firefighters already are getting pushback from Mayor John Suthers' administration. The city said in a statement to the Indy that although Local 5 presented "papers" to the clerk's office "claiming its intent" to petition for collective bargaining, "It initially appears that the process may conflict in important ways with the City's Home Rule charter and ordinances and fundamental principles governing election matters."

While Local 5 has been around since 1918, it's never had the ability to represent firefighters in negotiations with the city on pay and benefits. The group sees bargaining as necessary, given their inability to get traction for issues important to firefighters, Noblitt says. He notes that during discussion of public safety issues at the mayor and council's retreat recently, the police chief was invited, but the fire chief was not. Suthers has acknowledged the city's shortage of cops and competitive pay for them several times, bumped police salaries last year and is searching for money for more cops and equipment.

But a salary survey conducted by Local 5 showed a disparity up to 12.6 percent between Colorado Springs firefighters and comparable departments across the state. "If we look at 2018 and all the market adjustments going on [in other cities], it's going to get worse," Noblitt says.

The biggest pay gap is for captains, who are paid $93,192 per year compared to those in nine other metro departments in Colorado who average $104,921. Pay for Firefighter 1, or the lowest level, is $70,212 here, compared to an average elsewhere of $77,923.

Noblitt says the city's Human Resources Department's "geographical adjustment" lowered that to a 5 to 6 percent difference, based on the theory the cost of living in Colorado Springs is less than in the Denver metro area and elsewhere.

With a 2 percent raise proposed for city employees next year, Noblitt says firefighters will fall further behind their cohorts in other cities.

As pay doesn't keep pace, loss of trained firefighters to other departments winnows the ranks, he argues. "Our attrition rate is just behind the police department," he says. "We're not as bad, but we have had a worse attrition rate recently than in years past. People come here and get certified and go elsewhere."

Noblitt notes that even after a new recruit class is added to the ranks this summer, the department still will fall 16 short of the 453 firefighters on the payroll in 2007.

"Mandatory overtime is through the roof," he says. "It's probably the highest it's ever been." The Independent reported last year ("Time is money," News, August 10, 2016) that overtime costs between 2009 and 2015 exploded from $4.7 million to $9.8 million, and in 2016 was on pace to set a record at $10.6 million. The king of overtime is the Fire Department, at $4.7 million in 2015, which was nearly half of all overtime paid by the city and averaged $11,404 per sworn firefighter. Police officers collected $4.1 million in overtime in 2015, or $6,271 per sworn officer.

Noblitt also notes the department is operating with engines that are more than 15 years old. Although voters approved the Public Safety Sales Tax dedicated to police and fire in 2001, revenues haven't been sufficient to satisfy all needs, he says.

Although Council and the mayor could simply agree to recognize Local 5 as a bargaining unit, that's unlikely. Under SB 25, Local 5 could gather signatures of the required 20 percent of voter turnout at the last municipal election on April 4, or about 16,900.

Noblitt says Local 5 is eying either the November 2018 mid-term election ballot or the April 2019 city election ballot. "We're doing polling on that to find out which one of those election cycles would be most advantageous," Noblitt says, adding that polling conducted in 2007 and again in 2013 showed voters favored the idea. If a measure fails at the polls, SB 25 requires firefighters to wait four years to petition for another question. SB 25 also bars firefighters from striking.

Noblitt emphasized that a proposed contract would be disclosed before any election, so voters will know exactly what firefighters seek. "It allows us to have a seat at the table," Noblitt says. "Negotiations would come back to health, safety, working conditions and compensation."

Noblitt says firefighters likely will ask that binding arbitration be made part of the contract, meaning if Local 5 and the mayor can't come to terms, both would agree to accept findings of an arbitrator.

As to the city's initial resistance to the idea of collective bargaining, Noblitt says, "We truly believe in the democratic process to petition the electorate ... We believe that should be afforded to us."

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