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Pact with South Portland firefighters contains no-layoff clause, fitness stipends, but no cost-of-living raises

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Pact with South Portland firefighters contains no-layoff clause, fitness stipends, but no cost-of-living raises

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday night unanimously approved a two-year contract with firefighters, who will not receive across-the-board raises, but gained a no-layoff clause.

The contract, which expires on June 30, 2011, is expected to cost the city more than $8,000 this fiscal year, which started in July, and more than $65,500 during the 2011 budget cycle.

Both sides said negotiations were not contentious and there was a mutual understanding of the current economic environment.

"We did have a very good, cordial relationship," Human Resources Director John McGough said. "Having done a lot of areas of negotiating and not having positive relationships, I can tell you, it's much nicer to have a good working relationship. I appreciate that." 

The contract contains a no-layoff clause for the 46 full-time firefighters, who have been working without a contract since June 30. That clause does not extend, however, to five provisional firefighters who have been with the department for less than year. 

"This is, considering the current economic times, a good deal," firefighter Jason Perry, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1470, said. "It allows us to progress in certain areas that we need to move forward as a Fire Department, both in the professional development arena and the physical fitness arena."

Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said the department has had a tough year, given the death of firefighter Debra Cole and the difficult budget year. The department is resigned to the fact that no additional firefighters will be hired by the city next year, he said. 

"We know we're not going to have more firefighters next year; if anything, we will have a few less," Guimond said. "We've had a tough year. I'll be happy when we turn the page to next year." 

Firefighters will not receive an annual cost-of-living increase, but can increase their salaries through professional development and fitness training – two clauses expected to cost the city $37,000 over the next two years.

Starting next July, firefighters who receive their initial paramedics license from the state will see their one-time reimbursement double from $1,000 to $2,100. In July, 2010, firefighters who are licensed paramedics will receive a 20-cent increase in their hourly wage. About 28 of the department's 48 firefighters are fully certified paramedics,  McGough said. 

Meanwhile, a new $1,000 incentive for firefighters who can pass an agility test similar to the one given to police officers twice a year was applauded by firefighters, the council and administrators. McGough said more rigorous agility testing may be required in the future.

Perry said the top killer of firefighters is heart attack, not dying in burning buildings. He said he hopes the cash incentive will be enough to compel firefighters to take active measures to improve their health.

"It's a sad statement that the No. 1 killer of firefighters is still cardiac disease," Perry said. "This is going to allow us some mechanisms to help deal with that and move forward." 

The contract also seeks to improve the department's ability to recruit and retain new members by offering floating holidays and bereavement leave to domestic partners of firefighters, two clauses applauded by Councilor Patti Smith.  

The contract also brings firefighters in line with contract changes made for police officers. While existing employees will see no change, anyone hired after July 1, 2010, will be eligible for a pension plan after completing 25 years of service at a rate of two-thirds of their salary with cost of living adjustments, instead of half of their salary. Meanwhile, employees with fewer than 25 years will see their employee contribution jump from 6.5 percent to 8 percent, while the city's contribution will increase from 4 percent to 5.3 percent. 

"In the push and pull process that goes along with labor negotiations, in the best of all circumstances, you end up with an agreement much to the benefit of everyone," Councilor Tom Coward said. "I think this is what happened here."

Armory

In other business, the council unanimously approved the first reading of a conditional zone for the former Maine Army National Guard Armory on Broadway at the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge. The zone would allow a sound stage for movies, television shows and commercials to be built in the facility, which was purchased by the city for $650,000 in 2006. 

The rezoning would include a parcel of land owned by Central Maine Power Co. that buffers neighbors along Scamman Street. While the parcel needed to be included in the rezoning by law, the city further increased the buffering requirement from 20 feet to 40 feet, should the land end up as a parking lot.

Final action on the conditional zone is expected at the council's Nov. 16 meeting. Meanwhile, the city continues to negotiate a lease for the building with Eric Matheson, a Cape Elizabeth resident with experience in the film industry.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net