Contract negotiations between the City and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 200, the bargaining agent for Bartlesville firefighters, have ground to a halt — and Bartlesville voters could determine the outcome if a contract agreement isn't settled by the parties or in arbitration. City Manager Mike Bailey talks about what's in dispute and why it's important in this edition of Inside Track.
City Beat: Let's start at the beginning. What's going on?
Bailey: Essentially, the City is required to negotiate annual contracts with two groups of City employees who are represented by bargaining agents, commonly referred to as unions. These are police officers, who are represented by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 117, and firefighters, who are represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 200.
These meetings begin around March or April and our goal is to have contracts in place prior to the beginning of the new fiscal year, which starts July 1. This year, however, while the City has reached an agreement with the FOP, we have entered into the 2021-22 Fiscal Year without a contract with the IAFF, as the union and City negotiating groups have been unable to agree on terms of the contract.
What's in dispute
What is the disagreement, exactly?
The "City" has not received a response to our last offer, made June 25, so we are left to presume the IAFF's objection is over one or both of the only two significant changes proposed in the contract: pay increases, or a modification to the department's promotional process as it relates to administrative positions.
Taking those one at a time, what pay increases has the City offered?
The City is offering pay increases to all ranks ranging from 6.5 to 13.5 percent, with 11.5 percent proposed for the rank of fire fighter, which represents half the department. We've also offered an increase in longevity pay, which is money that City employees receive based on years of employment, and those increases range from 79 to 367 percent.
In all, these increases total $527,534. This is not a one-time bonus; it would be a permanent expenditure from the City's General Fund solely for Bartlesville firefighters.
In a recent media report, IAFF representatives said they only want what other City employees have received. Is the City's offer to firefighters less than what was given to other City employees?
No, it is not. Firstly, our goal was to bring all City employees up to the average of our peer cities, so all pay increases this year were predicated on that premise, including the increases offered to the firefighters.
Secondly, these increases are in addition to the pay increases we implemented last year with CARES Act funds to help bring our firefighters' pay in line with other department of similar size. Firefighters received the largest pay increases of all employee groups last year. Those increases, coupled with what the City is offering for the current fiscal year, will bring Bartlesville firefighters' pay to above the average pay of firefighters in peer cities. So it is disingenuous to imply that the offer for this year is less than what other employees received. That is not taking into account the substantial adjustments firefighters received last year.
In the 16 years I've been doing this, the City has never been able to offer such a generous compensation package to any of its employee groups as it has over the past two years, thanks largely to federal stimulus funding and some ongoing increases to operating funds. Frankly, it surprises me that the IAFF has not accepted or even offered a counter to our offer.
Promotional process: What's at stake
What does the City's proposed change in the department's promotional process entail?
Actually, the City has asked to change very little. Currently, the IAFF contract states that the City can only promote from the five most senior members who apply for a promotion. This applies to almost all positions and ranks. Some management level positions including deputy fire chief, fire marshal (or deputy fire marshal) and training officer are subject to this limitation. It's important to note that the deputy fire chief is not even covered by the contract. By law, this position is not a member of or represented by the IAFF.
The problem with the way the contract is currently written recently came to light with the retirement of the fire chief and the training officer, and with the addition of a fire marshal or deputy fire marshal position approved in this year's budget by the City Council. As a result of these changes, we have filled the positions of chief and training officer and will fill the positions of deputy fire chief and fire marshal (or deputy fire marshal), all within a very short period of time.
These positions are extremely important to the future of the department, as one might imagine, and we believe the current promotional rule is limiting in several areas.
For instance, if they wanted to, the most senior members of the department could apply for every one of these management-level promotions, whether they are truly interested in the positions or not, and effectively block a more qualified, less senior candidate from being tested, and thereby, promoted.
How would this occur?
An example is the recent promotion of the training officer's position. We were only allowed to test the five most senior applicants — and four of them failed the test, so only one person was eligible for promotion in that case. We are fortunate that the one person who passed the test was an excellent candidate, but this made it very clear that this policy has to be changed.
There is no other department in the City that permits employees of a department to effectively choose their managers. That is the role of the department’s administration. And we believe the fire chief should have more of a say in who is promoted to the No. 2 spot of deputy chief, in addition to other managerial positions.
Additionally, we believe this is better for the firefighters themselves, as it opens the possibility of promotion to more people. Firefighters who are interested in promotion would no longer have to wait years and years to be eligible for promotion, and that would allow us not only to make the promotional process more competitive to ensure we're getting the very best person for the job, but it would also keep us from losing good firefighters to other, more competitive departments.
We discussed how the City’s offer would cause our firefighters’ pay to be above the average of our peer cities. How does our promotional system compare to those cities?
Only one of our peer cities limits who may be tested for a promotion based on seniority. All of our other peers have moved to a promotional system focused on competence, not seniority. These cities allow all eligible employees to test for promotions. Promotional systems like our current one are increasingly rare in effective, results-driven city organizations.
What is the next step in this process?
In an effort to expedite the process and resolve these issues, the City has requested the matter be heard by an arbitrator.
What does that mean?
Arbitration is an adversarial procedure resembling a legal hearing in which both sides present their case to an arbitrator, who is appointed by both sides. The arbitrator will render a finding in favor of either the City's or the union's "last, best offer." If the ruling is in favor of the union, the City has the option of asking Bartlesville voters to decide the final outcome.
When will an arbitrator hear the case?
The City and the IAFF have selected arbitrators for the matter — there are actually three, one selected by the City, one selected by the IAFF and a third selected by both parties. We are awaiting potential dates for the case to be heard.
If the City ultimately elects to ask voters to decide the issue, when would an election be held?
In that case we would ask the Washington County Election Board to give us potential dates for a special election and then present those dates to the City Council. The council would vote on whether or not to officially request an election, at which point voters would decide on either the City's or the union's "last, best offer."
Is an election in this matter inevitable?
No, not at all. We are still hopeful that we will reach an agreement with the union and be able to execute an agreed upon contract for the current fiscal year. We have been and certainly remain open to further negotiations with the IAFF.
We simply want the public — as well as the employees of the city— to know what these issues are, as it could be incumbent upon them to decide the outcome.