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Source:  Rapid City Journal
By:  Emilie Rusch
May 16, 2012
    City, firefighters reach resolution in wage dispute
    Rapid City and its firefighters have come to an agreement on wages that could end a two-year dispute between management and the union that represents the Rapid City Fire Department’s rank and file.

    City firefighters and paramedics would get a 2.5 percent raise in January, on top of a half-percent raise they are currently entitled to, according to the proposed memorandum of understanding between the city and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1040. A second wage increase would be due in July 2013, the amount of which would depend on city sales tax revenue.

    If the city ends 2012 up at least 1 percent over 2011 sales tax collections, firefighters would get a raise of 1.25 percent next summer. Depending on the growth factor, that second raise could also be 2.5 percent, 3.75 percent or 5 percent.

    Under the agreement, wages for union-eligible firefighters would increase to 90 percent of the average in the region identified in a 2009 study.

    City and union officials on Tuesday said the proposed agreement was the result of a collaborative interest-based bargaining program that began shortly after a court ruling in the union’s favor in January.

    “We think we have a proposal that addresses the compensation issues for our firefighters,” Fire Chief Mike Maltaverne said. “The goal was to get them to that fair and equitable wage for our region.”

    Lt. Monte Mertes, lead negotiator for the union, said his membership has already ratified the proposal.

    “It had to be responsible to the taxpayers. It had to be ratifiable by the city council,” Mertes said. “We didn’t just sit down and say we want to be at average, we want our 20 percent. We decided on something that would move us toward that.”

    According to the proposed agreement, Rapid City’s current wage structure puts firefighters at 80 percent of the regional average.

    The 2009 study that determined those averages was to be the basis of negotiations for the current four-year contract, but after the city refused, the union filed an unfair labor practice claim.

    In December 2010, the city imposed its last best offer, temporarily stripping union members of their just-cause protections and authorizing a 0.75 percent raise in the contract’s first year. The union had proposed a 19 percent raise phased in over four years based on the study.

    A Seventh Circuit judge ruled in January that the city had violated a 2006 agreement with the union when it refused to use the 2009 study in negotiations. The judge ordered the city to reopen the contract with the firefighters, with the wage study as the starting point.

    Mayor Sam Kooiker, who was not directly involved in the negotiations, said he hopes the interest-based bargaining process will become the standard for all of the city’s union dealings in the future.

    “I believe the result is fair and equitable, based on the evidence that was presented by the firefighters,” Kooiker said. “There are a lot of people that are to be commended for coming up with a very positive and reasonable solution.”

    The Legal & Finance Committee will make a recommendation on the agreement at its meeting today, with the Rapid City Council set to make the final decision Monday.

    The total cost of the raises was not immediately available Tuesday. Through the end of March, sales tax revenue is up 10 percent over 2011, according to the City Finance Office.

    According to the 2009 study, the average salary in the region in 2009 for a firefighter EMT was $46,019, a firefighter paramedic $52,653, and fire lieutenant $58,779. Study participants included Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, Grand Junction, Colo., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Moorhead, Minn., Bismarck, N.D., Grand Island, Neb., and Casper, Wyo.

    As of 2010, Rapid City’s average wage of firefighters eligible for union membership was $43,984, not including overtime, according to the city.