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Agreement with the Firefighters Association squeaks through council

OCEANSIDE — A two-year agreement with the Firefighters Association — that saves the city more than $1 million in pension costs — squeaked by City Council in a 3-2 vote Sept. 22. Councilmen Jerry Kern and Jack Feller voted no.
The agreement gives firefighters a 2.5 percent pay raise and requires them to pay 4 percent of their retirement dues.
It also cuts two paid holidays, allows sick leave to count toward total hours worked in overtime pay calculations, and ensures a minimal staffing of 32 employees per shift in order to restore a fire company to Station No. 8.
As part of the agreement the city will give the fire department $143,374 in unallocated general funds to the cover the costs of this year’s allowable fringe benefits and overtime.
There were numerous pros and cons discussed before the agreement was OK’d.
Some thought the agreement that steps closer to firefighters paying their full retirement dues fell short of city budget goals. “In these tough economic times we’re all tightening our belts,” Catherine Hamilton, an Oceanside resident, said. The Fire Department contract is too rich given the current economic atmosphere we’re in.”
Others saw the agreement as a positive step toward future negotiations with city employees. “I don’t think its an ideal contract, but negotiations are a give and a take by definition,” Robert Spencer, an Oceanside resident, said. “Four percent is a reasonable amount to start with in good faith negotiations for a future amount.”
Many were glad to see a fire engine restored to Station No. 8. “No fire truck means no fire protecting,” Councilman Chuck Lowery said. “It’s shocking that a whole neighborhood is on the chopping block because we want to save a little money.”
Others felt staffing levels, that ensure sufficient firefighters to man the engine, should not be included in the agreement. “Staffing levels should not be in the MOU, that’s bad policy,” Kern said. “It’s probably the worst thing in whole contract. This is a step backwards.”
There was also criticism that salary step increases were allowed to continue. “The higher salary, the higher pensions,” Chris Cate, senior director of policy and operations for San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said.
Council members bantered about the political motivation to approve or disapprove the agreement that was passed with a 3-2 vote.
Councilwoman Esther Sanchez said the previous council majority of Kern, Feller and Rocky Chavez had the opportunity to push through a reasonable agreement without monthlong delays. “They had the opportunity for KFC to take the leadership role and they failed,” Sanchez said. “Anyone who does not support this contract — and this is a psychological point — is putting lives at risk.”
Kern brought up his belief that the failed recall election against him was supported by area firefighters associations because of his firm stand against the city paying any of the firefighters’ share of pension costs. “They wanted to flip the council and they achieved their goal,” Kern said. “This isn’t politically motivated (for me), it’s economically motivated. The pension system is unsustainable.”