By Jim Schroeder
After nearly seven months of contract negotiations, Havre firefighters didn't receive the three-year wage package they wanted, but settled on a one-year contract that gives them a 4 percent salary increase and pays half of their 25 percent health insurance premium increase for one year.
The firefighters union had asked for a 7 to 8 percent wage increase for the 2002-2003 fiscal year and a 6 to 8 percent raise for two ensuing years. The amount would have depended on the employee's rank and job.
Local 601 of the International Association of Firefighters approved the one-year contract Aug. 28 and the City Council approved it last Tuesday. The contract is retroactive to July 1.
The city and firefighters will have to reopen negotiations for the following year.
"We're happy with the contract and they're a good bunch," City Council member Tom Farnham said. "It's like the deal with the police with the reopening of the insurance contract next year, but the firemen would be open to both wages and insurance."
The firefighters union issued a press release about the contract on Friday.
"Even though the local was attempting to get its firefighters closer to the average salary for a firefighter in the state of Montana, we are happy with the settlement," vice president Kelly Jones said in the release.
The average pay for Montana firefighters is about $15.34 an hour, Jones said. Havre firefighters will average about $12.57 an hour, he said.
"The firefighters understand that after the events in the nation last year and the declining economy on a national and state level that this would be a good starting point at this time," the release said.
The union made its initial proposal in March. The previous year the 15 union members had received a 1.5 percent pay increase.
The city's counterproposal on June 24 called for a 4 percent wage increase for all fire department employees, 3 percent the next year and 2 percent in the following year. The union countered with a 4 percent raise this year and 3 percent for each of the next two years.
At that meeting, the union agreed to stay with the department's current overtime policy, which is time and a half for the first two hours and regular time after that. The sides also agreed that each firefighter would receive an annual allowance of $350 for uniforms. The city and union also settled on a $25 raise a month for emergency medical technicians and $50 for intermediate EMTs.
The city and union also agreed on a way to split a 25 percent increase in health insurance premiums, the first such increase for city workers in 10 years.
A single firefighter will continue to pay nothing for insurance, although a single firefighter's rate will increase from $195 to $220 a month. A two-party insurance premium will increase from $390 a month to $487.50 a month, and the city will pick up half the increase. Monthly family rates of $515 a month will increase to $643.75, and the city will pick up half of that increase.
The plan also calls for an increase in deductible payments for major medical expenses, from $1,000 to $1,500 and minor medical expenses from $100 to $250 for all city employees.
The firefighters union didn't budge from its June 24 counterproposal on wages. A stalemate occurred at a Aug. 6 meeting that almost forced the two groups into mediation. The city offered a one-year contract with a 3 percent raise for 2002-03 fiscal year.
But the City Council's labor and negotiations committee met on Aug. 8 and decided that it could give the 4 percent increase the firefighters union was looking for.
Meanwhile, Havre police officers reached a tentative agreement with the labor and negotiations committee on Aug. 28 for a two-year contract with a 3.5 percent raise the first year and 3 percent the second. The city would cover the entire cost of the insurance increase.
The police, who are members of the Montana Public Employees Association, originally wanted a one-year 10 percent wage increase and also wanted the added cost of insurance premiums to be paid by the city.
Police negotiator Dick Letang said Monday he doesn't believe the firefighters' contract will have an effect on the tentative agreement with Havre police.
"With the money, we prefer to balance it between the insurance and living adjustments," Letang said. "We had half our membership on dependent coverage and based on that I think the settlement meets those needs.
"We decided to put more into the insurance then the salary, and the firefighters decided to put more money into their salary than the insurance," Letang added.
Letang expects that Havre police will approve the agreement by mid-September.