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City Council Rejects Proposed Firefighters Contract, Citing Budget-impact Concerns

Fairbanks Fire Fighters Union

The Fairbanks City Council on Monday rejected a proposed three-year contract with the Fairbanks Fire Fighters union local. The council voted 4-to-2 against the deal that Mayor Jim Matherly and his chief of staff Mike Meeks had worked out with the union’s negotiating team over the past several months.

Among other things, the proposed offered the union’s 40 members a 1.5 percent increase for health insurance and wages and re-institute bonus leave for senior members.

Councilman Jerry Cleworth said those offers were too generous and unaffordable.

“If there’s new revenue out there, then you can be much more liberal in these negotiations,” he said. “But, I don’t see it, folks. I am very, very worried about the future.”

Cleworth says he also was concerned that other unions would want some of those offers, such as bonus leave, in their contracts.

“If I were a negotiator for any of the other unions,” he said, “I would say ‘I do want that.’ ... They’re watching us. They’re watching what we do.”

The council was scheduled to hear progress reports in an executive session on talks with unions representing unionized electrical workers and public-safety employees.

David Pruhs says he also couldn’t support the contract because the mayor and staff gave councilmembers information on the contract too late for them to study it. He says he some of the information was inaccurate and that still other issues were left unresolved.

“It’s the unknowns that ... gives me pause to say no,” Pruhs said, “let’s right this ship, let’s take a step back.”

Matherly argued that he and Meeks had addressed council members’ concerns about the contract by for example crafting it so it could be trimmed if anticipated revenues fell through. He told the council it needs to act on the contract, because among other things the fire department must plan how to handle the rapidly increasing number of emergency calls it’s been getting.

“You don’t want overtime,” the mayor said. “You don’t want to hire. You’ve told me that. So what’s your plan on the increased calls?”

The firefighters union projects the number of emergency calls it’ll get this year to reach 5,000, up from 4,400 last year.

“We are through the roof on our calls,” Matherly said. “And we have a lot of concerns on a lot of citizens on ‘What are you going to do to help us if we have a call? I don’t want to wait 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes.’ ”

Council members Jonathan Bagwill and June Rogers voted with the majority to reject the contract. Valerie Therrien and Joy Huntington voted to approve it.

A new round of talks on the contract is expected to begin soon.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.