EFR firefighters to get 7.5 percent pay increase

February 17, 2009

By J.B. Wogan

Local firefighters just received some good news: They’re getting a raise. Based on a collective bargaining agreement for Eastside Fire & Rescue, firefighters will get a 7.55 percent boost to their salaries this year.

EFR’s coverage area includes Issaquah, Sammamish, North Bend, Carnation and portions of unincorporated King County. 

The size of the salary increase caught some EFR commissioners by surprise. 

Board Chairman Ron Pedee said the increase was larger than he had expected. 

“This is quite a major difference,” said Lee Fellinge, a Sammamish representative on the commission. “Clearly, it’s not sustainable going forward.”

 

How salaries are calculated

EFR’s formula for calculating firefighters’ salary is based on an average of 16 local fire departments in the Puget Sound region. Most of those determine annual increases in salaries based on the Consumer Price Index.

Craig Hooper, president of the firefighters union, said the formula stems from how other fire departments of comparable size pay their firefighters.

“I think the important thing to know is, it’s justified based on what the market is,” he said.

Hooper is the president of International Association of Firefighters Local 2878 — a union that represents EFR, as well as the Fall City, Snoqualmie and Duvall departments. 

Many fire departments use the month of June as the benchmark. They measure the rise in the Consumer Price Index — sometimes referred to as the rate of inflation —from June of one year to the next. That method happened to boost salaries higher than normal for 2009, according to Deanna Krelle, member services coordinator for the Association of Washington Cities.

Fire departments in Bellevue, Maple Valley, North Highline, Shoreline, Woodinville, Kirk, Kent and Redmond, all part of the 16-department average formula for EFR, used June from the Consumer Price Index. Snohomish County’s Fire District 1 also used June.

In 2008, June marked the highest percent increase for inflation — 5.8 percent or 6.2 percent, depending on whether the department used the index’s listings for all urban consumers or urban wage earners and clerical workers. Some departments also had a provision to add a nominal amount to that salary increase.

Since EFR uses an average based on fire departments that use the June method, EFR firefighters had an unusually high increase.

 

Raises tend to average out

It doesn’t always work that way, Hooper said. In previous years, the averaging formula left firefighters with salary increases of 2 percent or 3 percent, he said. 

Using the month of June isn’t a maneuver by fire unions, Krelle said. It’s just that June and August are the most recent months when departments engage in budget discussions. 

Sometimes, departments use an average of the monthly inflation rate for the first half of a year, Krelle said. For 2008, the “first half” rate was within the 4.6-percent to 4.9-percent range.

While there isn’t anything fishy about using June, the month can matter. In December, the inflation rate was at 1.7 percent or 1.1 percent, depending on which index listing was used. Had the majority of EFR’s 16 comparable fire departments used December, the average increase in EFR firefighters’ salaries would have been smaller. 

Fellinge said he questioned whether the increase in firefighter salaries was fair to EFR as a whole, as well as EFR’s partners, like Sammamish, which will bear some of the burden of the salary increase. 

“I’m a great supporter of having fair wages and salaries of our firefighters, but I want to make sure it’s reasonable compared to other costs,” he said. 

Krelle said police officers and firefighters tend to have bigger salary increases than other public officials. 

“The reason for that is that state law doesn’t allow police and fire to strike,” she said, explaining that if a fire union and locality disagree about a labor contract, a third party arbiter from the state determines the contract for them.

Firefighters at all levels of EFR have received consistent wage increases, averaging roughly 5 percent per year. 

In 2003, the lowest-ranked EFR firefighter had an annual salary of $44,772. Six years later, the same position pays $57,372 annually, a 28 percent increase. The highest paid position in 2003 was a battalion chief, which paid $86,346; today, it pays $113,104, a 31 percent increase.

 

Raises will impact overall budget

The 2009 budget for EFR had accounted for about a 5.6 percent increase in salaried positions, not 7.55 percent.

While the salary increase might be a boon to firefighters in one way, it’ll hurt them in another: EFR will have less to spend on supplies and maintenance.

Last year, EFR commissioners from Issaquah, Sammamish and North Bend instructed EFR to shoot for a 5 percent or less increase in its future budgets. If salaried positions exceed 5 percent, most other portions of the budget will have to be increased by less than 5 percent, according to Dave Gray, finance chief for EFR.

Gray said salaried positions represented about 80 percent of EFR’s annual budget. 

“It’s belt tightening again,” Gray said, adding that the increase in salaries would cut into budgeted increases for other areas of the 2009 budget. About $240,000 that would have gone to operations and maintenance will pay for firefighter salaries instead, Gray said.

“It’s tough times for everybody,” he said.

While the 2009 firefighter salaries are set in stone, wage increases of this kind will be up for negotiation in 2010, according to Pedee.

The labor contracts are negotiated every three years, and it is possible that the formula for calculating a firefighter salary would change.

Gray said he thinks the current formula is best in the long run, as the rate of increases even out over time, but acknowledged that it left EFR at the mercy of how other fire departments determine their salaries. 

As early as May, EFR officials will begin negotiating 2010 contracts for battalion chiefs. 

“We’re going to have to get creative with the union,” Pedee said. 

Reach Reporter J.B. Wogan at 392-6434, ext. 247, or jbwogan@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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