Nearly 100 off-duty firefighters crammed into the Historic Courthouse Tuesday to urge Pasco commissioners to start spending a $2.3 million federal grant that allows the county to hire more firefighters.
Commissioners agreed to implement the grant, but warned they may end up cutting firefighters' pay to comply with terms of the grant.
"We do want 18 more firefighters," Fire Captain Ken Urbuteitsaid. "We just don't want it at the expense of a 10 percent pay cut."
The county accepted the Department of Homeland Security's Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant in August. It was supposed to bring the department back up to full staffing level for two years, but the county had not hired any new firefighters even though the department is understaffed and operating under brownouts to minimize overtime costs.
That's because commissioners used the grant as a bargaining chip to try to get the firefighters' union to accept a new contract and drop a grievance over lost pay raises. The International Association of Firefighters Local 4420 voted down two contracts in 2012 that called for zero pay raises, and they have refused to drop the grievance.
Firefighter Lee Hudson said the county should live up to the terms of the contract it signed in 2007 that called for a series of pay raises. "To hold in your hand a raise you agreed to and a grant you applied for – those things are not related at all," he said.
Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker said if the county loses the grievance, it would have to pay $2.2 million for pay raises. The only way to do that and to comply with the grant – which prohibits the county from laying off any firefighters – would be to implement "temporary wage and benefit corrections."
Baker never said how large the pay cut would be – union members speculated it would be 10 percent. Baker asserted that even with a pay cut, the county fire department's pay would still be competitive with other departments in the region. To bolster her argument, Baker circulated a list of all fire department employees and their gross pay from 2011.
Urbuteitsaid the information is incomplete because there was no comparison data of pay scales for other fire departments. Commissioner Kathryn Starkey asked Baker to compile pay information from other fire departments.
Fire Chief Scott Cassin, who joined the department two years ago, said he's never seen the pay study that found Pasco's firefighters were the lowest paid in the region. "We could be at the bottom, but we could be in the middle – I just don't know," he said.
But even without the comparables, Urbuteit said the pay chart was also misleading. "Yes, I made $79,000 last year," he said. "But what that chart doesn't say is that I worked 625 hours of mandatory overtime that year. I worked even more overtime in 2012 because we're short captains and they didn't promote anyone."
Cassin said the department has addressed the shortage of fire captains. "We're only down one captain position now, and we're going to promote from within to fill that position," he said.
Cassin said he's looking forward to implementing the SAFER grant. With the commissioners' blessing Tuesday, he can now proceed with hiring the 18 grant-funded positions as well as five additional vacant positions.