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City Council delays contract vote

Some object to details of deal with firefighters’ union

– City Council members took a pass on approving a contract with the city firefighters’ union Tuesday, hoping to use the ordinance approving the deal to tweak items in the negotiated agreement.

The contract is the first to come to the council table since members eliminated negotiating with six of the city’s nine labor unions. Now, only firefighters and the two unions representing police officers are allowed to undertake collective bargaining.

The contract with Fort Wayne Professional Fire Fighters Union Local No. 124 expired at the end of 2013; the new contract gives firefighters 2 percent raises each of the three years of the agreement, with the 2014 raises being paid retroactively. The department is authorized to have 375 firefighters.

Council members for the most part said they supported the contract, but several took issue with a few provisions, mainly that it includes paying for a full-time union president. Some also objected to language that appears to make paying union dues mandatory and a time bank to allow union work on city time.

“We’re paying someone not to be a firefighter,” said Marty Bender, R-at large, a deputy chief in the police department. “We’re paying them to be a union president instead of being out there fighting fires.”

Union president Jeremy Bush said the position actually saves the department money because it used to pay an assistant chief to perform all the functions he does, such as handling safety, performance, merit board and discipline issues and acting as a liaison between union members and the city administration.

“The big concern here is that ‘union’ word,” Bush said. “The fact is, I’m intimately involved in almost everything the department does.”

John Crawford, R-at large, said that while he disagreed with the provision philosophically – it was one of Crawford’s key arguments in the collective-bargaining debate last month – he could support the contract if it spelled out how much of Bush’s duties were union business and how much are departmental.

“The contract says nothing except union work,” Crawford said. “My objection would be cleared up if you could show the percentage.”

Other council members who objected had a problem: They were being asked to vote on a contract already negotiated over several months. Attempting to change it would require starting the ratification process all over again.

But Mitch Harper, R-4th, said members can change the ordinance approving the contract – especially if those changes are agreeable to the union leadership.

Bush said they would be open to the ideas and noted that even after the contract expires, the ordinance stays in place.

“We are always open to discussion with members of the council,” Bush said.

Members then voted 8-0 to hold the measure for one week to allow changes to be worked out on the ordinance. Member Glynn Hines, D-6th, was absent, and Russ Jehl, R-2nd, said he will be absent next week and wants to go on record that he will not support tax dollars being spent for any union business.

In other business, council members voted 7-1 to approve changes in sewer fees in a proposal that drew dozens of angry, shouting residents three weeks ago. The changes – mainly for connecting new neighborhoods to city sewers – enraged residents outside the city who, thanks to a confusing city mailer, thought they were being forced to connect and to pay thousands in fees for doing so.

After city officials explained the issue in a public meeting with residents last week, not one person spoke in opposition Tuesday night. Harper voted no on the measure after objecting to how connection fees are calculated.