A Burning Issue

It’s contract time at the County. Each year the County’s bargaining units (unions) negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that covers everything from salaries to grievances, benefits to disciplinary action.

Before the negotiations began, County Manager Tom Zdunek informed me (and I assume my fellow Commissioners) that the financial gurus over in finance were predicting about a 3% revenue increase for the coming fiscal year. As a result, Mr. Zdunek was hoping to give employees somewhere around a 2% pay increase and budgeted $3.8 million for that purpose. That’s when the negotiations began.

Everything seemed to be going pretty well, at least as far as I could tell from my intentionally distant office. (Commissioners are kept out of the negotiations and it’s inappropriate for us to have contact with the members of the negotiation team.) That was until I got word that the County’s lead negotiator with the firefighter’s union had signed off on an agreement – without getting a financial impact report – that would dedicate over $2.2 million of the budgeted $3.8 million to the 226 members of the IAFF 244.

Staff prepared a brief analysis of the impact of implementing the tentatively agreed to contract.

  • $3.8M was set aside in FY13 for raises
  • $1.7M is the amount TA’d for the IAFF excluding benefits which is 44% of the $3.8M
  • An additional $541K will be required for increase in IAFF benefits which is 59% of the $3.8M
  • IAFF is 226 employees or 8% of 2,695 total county employees
  • $1.6M is the amount remaining for the 2,469 county employees
  • $2.7M is the amount required if 2% raise is given to each employee
  • The shortfall is $1.1M (includes increase in benefits)

It looks to me that most of the cost increases come from implementing steps of not less than 10% between job descriptions. The idea is to create a more cohesive career ladder that encourages firefighters to improve their skills and rewards them for doing so.

I suspect that our current system is leftover from a time when much of the department was a volunteer force. Bernalillo County is now a fully professional fire department and a coherent advancement ladder complete with pay incentives is important for a professional organization. In fact, I support their objective here.

The question is how do we get there?

The contract that will be coming before the Commission imposes a system of 10% difference in pay between each job class immediately. I would much prefer implementing the steps over a period of time – say 3 to 5 years – in order to allow the County to find sustainable funding. If we proceed with the currently proposed contract, we will either have to reduce the amount available raises for the other 2,243 County employees or supplement the recurring raises with non-recurring revenue. Frankly, we’ve done far too much of that already and I’m concerned that adding another $1.1 million to the $13 million of non-recurring funding committed to MDC will ultimately prove unsustainable.

There’s another provision of the contract that is also of concern. Article 27 outlines the policy for Drug and Alcohol Testing. The new contract seemingly limits the ability of the County to perform a breath or urine test following an accident involving a County vehicle or a personal vehicle in use for County business.

27.2 Any employee who is involved in an accident with a County owned vehicle personally owned vehicle during the course and scope of their employment, shall be required to submit to a post accident breath and urine test. An accident shall be defined as all events involving a County a vehicle during the course and scope of their employment which results in damage to any vehicle, injury to a person or damage to any property where:     

1. A life was lost OR
2. If while operating a motor vehicle, the driver was cited for a moving traffic
violation AND any individual involved was transported for medical treatment OR
3. If while operating a motor vehicle, the driver was cited for a moving traffic
violation AND a vehicle involved was disabled and removed from the scene
by other than its own power.
(Labor Management Agreement between County of Bernalillo and Albuquerque Area Fire Fighters IAFF Local 244 – read it here)

By defining an accident as all events involving a County vehicle the new language contradicts the intent expressed in the previous sentence which includes “personally owned vehicle during the course and scope of their employment.” More importantly, firefighters will only be involved in an accident if they are cited for a moving violation AND someone was transported, or if they’re cited and one of the vehicles is disabled. Of course if someone dies then the County will also administer a “post accident breath and urine test.”

However, if a firefighter slams into an empty parked car that can drive off on its own and no one dies or has to be transported, the fact that they’re in a County vehicle doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, “29% of active duty fire fighters have possible or probable problems with alcohol use” (read it here) as opposed to just 4% of the general population.

This is the type of provision that will come back to haunt the County and the taxpayers when there is an incident involving drugs or alcohol where someone dies and the driver has a history of accidents in County vehicles but the County couldn’t do a breath or urine test because the accident didn’t meet the contractual criteria for an “accident.” Given the number of high profile incidents involving firefighters, driving, and alcohol in the past few years, it’s probably not wise to include this change in the contract. And I’m quite sure that our friends at M.A.D.D. would agree.

Bernalillo County firefighters are highly trained and motivated individuals. They do a great job for the County and the public. I wish that the economy had recovered to the point where creating a professional job ladder for the professional men and women at BCFD in one fell swoop were possible. However, with the national jobless rate ticking up to 8.3% and local joblessness hovering around 7% the County must be careful not to over-extend itself even for employees who are providing important emergency services.

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Read the proposed full contract here.
Read the highlighted changes here.