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Tacoma: Police, fire layoffs could be delayed by a month amid discussions with public safety unions

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Dec. 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm | No Comments »
December 7, 2011 3:54 pm

Layoffs to 100 city police and fire employees may be delayed by a month, while the city negotiates with Tacoma’s public safety labor unions about ways to ease prospective budget cuts.

Tacoma City Councilman Jake Fey announced late Tuesday he will propose a motion next week calling to postpone Interim City Manager Rey Arellano’s proposed layoffs to the city’s public safety departments by 30 days.

“I think there’s strong recognition that this problem will not be solved unless (police and fire unions) participate in helping to solve it,” Fey said today. “The case was made last night that there needs to be some time to really look at this thoughtfully.  It’s worth the risk to pursue this.”

Several council members said late Tuesday they will support Fey’s proposal.  Representatives for Tacoma’s police and fire unions also say they’re willing to hold further budget discussions.

“At this point, we’re willing to talk about anything that can save jobs,” said Matt Frank, vice president of International Association of Fire Fighters’ Local 31. “The added 30 days gives us the ability to work through that and really examine every possible alternatives to the layoffs.”

Det. Terry Krause, president of Tacoma Police Union Local 6, added his union is “not saying no, we won’t take pay cuts at this point.”

But the police union remains skeptical about Arellano’s budget projections.

“We’re just in disagreement about their budget numbers,” Krause said. “I don’t get their math, and I was a math major.”

As part of his plan to close three-quarters of a $31 million projected budget shortfall by year’s end, Arellano and his department directors detailed plans on Tuesday to layoff 167 city employees.  Most layoffs  target police officers and fire personnel.  Police would cut 56 employees, mostly patrol officers. Fire would layoff 44 employees, including more than 40 frontline firefighters.

The job cuts also would mean eliminating most specialized police programs, closing two fire stations and cutting four fire engine companies.

The rank-and-file officers’ union was in the midst of negotiations for a new contract when the city’s budget crisis emerged. Collective bargaining has been suspended until next week amid budget planning, Krause said.

So far, the city has approached the police union about voluntary retirements and suspending certain benefit payments, Krause said. But the city has not asked union members to take wage cuts, he added.

Before Krause and other union officials will talk about potential pay cuts, “we have a duty to due diligence”  in examining the city’s budget forecast, he said.  Police union officials plan to meet with Tacoma Finance Director Bob Biles today, he added.

“Now, when we go back to bargaining next week, of course we’re going to talk about wages,” Krause said. “But we don’t believe (the city’s budget) numbers. They’ve got to be better than saying (the shortfall is) $10 to $31 million. Once we can agree on some numbers, then of course there’s a productive conversation about what we can do to mitigate the cuts.”

Meantime, the firefighters’ union met with the city’s labor negotiator Wednesday, Frank said.

“We are looking at everything that involves our collective bargaining – wages, hours and working conditions,” Frank said.

Police Chief Don Ramsdell and Fire Chief Ron Stephens each detailed grim proposed cuts to their departments. Both said the impact would mean slower response times to 911 calls and citizen complaints. The cuts would also mean dumping the police department’s gang unit, school resources officers program and most community liaison officers who handle neighborhood policing issues.

“That can’t happen,” Krause said about the prospective cuts. “Believe me, we will fight that. You’re talking about staffing levels falling back to the 1980s.”

Arellano said Wednesday his staff is now making preparations to accommodate Fey’s motion for the council’s Dec. 13 meeting. Meantime, city discussions with labor remain ongoing.

Asked if union concessions are the only way to avoid the proposed public safety layoffs, Arellano said: “I think at this point, yes.”

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