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Portland firefighters union steadfast in opposition to wage freeze, expects layoffs

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Portland firefighters union steadfast in opposition to wage freeze, expects layoffs

PORTLAND — As a deadline nears for the city's public safety unions to agree to a pay freeze or face layoffs, firefighters union officials say layoffs are the most likely scenario in their department.

The fiscal 2010 city budget passed by the City Council in May calls for laying off five police officers and six firefighters. The alternative is for police and fire unions to agree to a one-year freeze on cost of living wage increases that are included in union contracts.

Winston McGill, president of the Portland Professional Firefighters Union 740, which represents 240 firefighters, said it is unlikely his union will agree to the pay freeze. McGill said firefighters just agreed to a new contract with the city in April.

"If city management at the time of negotiations was aware of the budget issues, that's negotiating in bad faith," he said. "They signed a contract and then asked for it back."

City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said all city employee unions accepted the wage freeze except the public safety unions. That means employees will not receive a 2.5 percent cost-of-living wage adjustment in 2010.

"It's status quo," Clegg said. "The City Council passed the budget and it includes layoffs. Our hope, of course, is that they'll accept the freeze."

Clegg said city administrators are continuing to meet with union representatives, without any success. They have until June 30 to agree to the wage freeze, or layoffs will occur.

McGill said he thinks the city is treating all of its employees badly. He said the city needs to maintain its core services, but instead is laying people off.

"This is going to have a significant impact, especially because of the layoffs last year," he said, referring to 14 layoffs in the Fire Department in fiscal year 2009. "We're having to rely on Westbrook and South Portland for heavy rescue – and we're the largest city in Maine."

Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said the department will continue to manage with the resources it has available.

The layoffs will affect the Riverton Station, because staff would be reduced from four firefighters to three on the fire truck there. Because Riverton is farther away from other fire stations in the city, if there are multiple calls at the Riverton, Stevens Avenue and Allen Avenue stations, units from Ocean Avenue or Bramhall Square would have to back up Riverton.

"That delay impacts the tactics we use to extinguish a fire," LaMontagne said. The state, he said, has a "two in, two out" law, which requires two firefighters to be outside a burning building if two are inside. 

LaMontagne noted that all the other engines in Portland have three firefighters.

"We will put the safety of firefighters and citizens over property," he said.

But McGill said the reduction at Riverton puts firefighters in the possible position of arriving at a fire and not having enough people to fight it.

"What guy is going to stand outside a burning building when someone is trapped inside it?" McGill said.

He said union officials have presented alternatives to layoffs, including being more efficient with overtime and making adjustments to training sessions.

If layoffs do occur, he said, the city and unions will most likely end up in mediation because there is some disagreement about whether layoffs should be based on seniority or emergency medical training license level.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net