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South King Fire and Rescue gives up cost of living increase

South King Fire and Rescue firefighters will forgo a cost of living wage increase in 2011, which is expected to save the department nearly $247,000 this year.

The concession comes amid a grim budget for the district. The fire district faced a $1 million budget deficit going into this fiscal year, which was mostly covered by tapping cash reserves.

The concession was approved unanimously by the fire commissioners at a meeting last Thursday and had previously been approved by the firefighters’ union.

The commissioners and Chief Al Church heaped praise on the rank and file employees for giving up the increase.

“I think we all feel a debt of thanks for your sacrifice,” Vice Chairman James Fossos said.

Church noted that the concession is permanent, meaning that the department will never retroactively pay for the 2011 cost of living increase.

International Association of Firefighters Local 2024 president Ryan Herrera said the concession was inspired by the firefighters’ desire to maintain service.

“In light of the economic situation and the situation of the fire department, we felt this was the right thing to do,” he told the commissioners.

But the concession was in spite of budget trouble, not because of it. Herrera said the move was anticipatory, not done under the threat of layoffs. Union membership voted 76-26 in favor of the concession, he said.

Herrera said that under a contract negotiated in 2008 — and that went into effect in 2009 and expires in 2012 — union members can get between 2 percent and 6 percent cost of living increases each year.

“When you see negotiations, it’s typically a consequence of the loss of firefighters,” he said. “We had the forward thinking to minimize the impact.”

The commissioners approved a measure Nov. 15 to allow Church to enter into talks with the union about cutting costs. At the time, layoffs and retirement incentives were discussed as possibilities.

In October, the commissioners approved a $22.6 million budget for the department, which is 2.68 percent less than the 2010 budget. Church had already cut $650,000 by:

• Cutting an EMT vehicle, or “aid car.”

• Freezing administrative salaries at 2010 levels.

• Cutting all capital expenditures except debt service.

• Reducing public education programs.

• Enacting a hiring freeze and leaving four positions vacant.

• Cutting overtime pay by half.

Deputy Chief Gordon Olson said that budget shortfalls can be attributed largely to reduced property tax collections. The department collects a levy of $1.50 per every $1,000 of assessed value on property. Falling property values have decreased property tax revenue.

The department sought a new funding scheme in August, asking voters to approve a “benefit charge,” which failed at the polls. If approved, it would have charged each property owner a fee based on fire risk and square footage. The levy would have been reduced to $1 per every $1,000 of assessed property value.

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