2 mayoral candidates protest terms of fire union contract – Omaha.com

Two candidates for Omaha mayor are taking on a proposed labor contract between the city and its fire union, putting themselves at odds with a fellow Republican mayoral challenger.

Businessman Dave Nabity and former City Councilman Dan Welch have attacked what they say are overly generous or wasteful provisions in the tentative labor deal, which the city’s Personnel Board is set to approve today.

“The new contract, despite what some are saying, is not a good contract,” Welch, a Republican, said during a Republican luncheon Wednesday. “The new contract continues the problems we’ve had in the past. It puts off tough decisions for the union into the future, and we give up the goodies today.”

“This is going to be a major issue” in the mayoral campaign, Welch said.

Nabity, also a Republican, said the agreement reached by a group of City Council members — including Republican mayoral candidate Jean Stothert — would eliminate the city’s ability to determine Fire Department staffing.

Nabity, Stothert and Welch, along with independent Brad Ashford, will face Mayor Jim Suttle in next April’s mayoral primary. The election is officially nonpartisan.

The pending deal, supporters say, would save the city’s police and fire pension fund $822 million over 50 years. Effective until 2014, the deal would grant an average 1.6 percent wage increase per year going forward. Firefighters would pay a larger share of their health care and pension costs, though they would keep better prescription drug coverage. New hires would get lower pension benefits and have to work longer to draw full retirement benefits.

Welch said the proposed deal still does not go far enough to reform the pension system or save taxpayer dollars: “We all appreciate what police officers and firefighters do, but at the same time it simply has to be affordable for the people of Omaha, and right now it’s not. We need reform and we need it right now, and the city’s in trouble if we don’t get it right now.”

Nabity’s criticism is largely directed toward the contract’s staffing provisions.

The deal carries over language from a rejected union deal with Suttle’s administration that would grant the city “discretion” to determine department staffing. But Nabity points to other language that says the number of Fire Department positions filled upon the agreement’s approval couldn’t be subject to layoffs throughout the contract.

Those provisions would prevent the mayor and fire leadership from laying off firefighters to save money, Nabity said, because the contract language allows for staffing reductions only linked to attrition.

“It is a major mistake on the part of the City Council to put this language back in,” Nabity said. “It makes no sense to the taxpayers of the city of Omaha.”

The deal also would preserve minimum staffing requirements on fire equipment — the “four men on a truck” issue — though the agreement would expand some exceptions to that rule.

Welch said such staffing levels on city trucks are unnecessary. He said cities across the country are effectively fighting fires and providing medical care with three people per firetruck.

“Despite what you might hear at public forums, additional people aren’t going to die if you only have three people on a truck,” Welch said.

If approved by the Personnel Board, the contract will be considered by the council in December.

via 2 mayoral candidates protest terms of fire union contract – Omaha.com.

Council expected to OK Omaha fire union pact – Omaha.com

The Omaha City Council will likely have the votes to pass a proposed fire union contract, the council president said Thursday.

Thomas Mulligan called the proposal a “great compromise.”

“It’s a good first step in health care reform as well as pension reform,” he said.

Members of Omaha’s firefighters union have approved a proposed labor contract with the city, a key step in ratifying the deal.

Union members’ ballots were tallied late Wednesday after two days of voting. The exact number of members who voted to approve the deal wasn’t disclosed.

The City Personnel Board will vote on the contract during its Thursday meeting, which would send the deal to the City Council.

If the Personnel Board signs off on the agreement, the City Council will first see the contract on Dec. 4. A public hearing would be held on Dec. 11, with a vote to come on Dec. 18.

Councilwoman Jean Stothert, who served on the council’s labor negotiations committee, said she expects that the council will have the votes to pass the proposal.

The labor proposal represents significant pension and benefit reforms, she said. But to make even bigger reforms, changes will be needed in the state’s collective bargaining laws and state labor court, she said.

“We still feel the taxpayers are paying too much,” she said.

The contract would cover 2011 through 2014 and would be the first between the City of Omaha and firefighters Local 385 since 2007.

Firefighters would pay a larger share of their health care and pension costs under the agreement. New hires would get lower pension benefits and have to work longer to draw full retirement.

Though the deal eliminates the controversial pension practice known as “spiking,” the contract would implement a deferred retirement program that’s already been extended to fire managers and police. The program allows veteran employees to effectively draw a pension while working for the city.

Firefighters would retain their own health care plan and existing prescription drug coverage, although they would pay the same amounts as civilian employees for deductibles, out-of-pocket maximum payments, co-insurance maximums, out-of-network care and premiums.

Other parts of the deal would:

» Give firefighters a 2.5 percent pay increase for the last half of 2012, a 2.25 percent raise in 2013 and 2.9 percent in 2014.

» Preserve minimum staffing requirements on fire equipment, although the deal expands some exceptions to that rule.

» Eliminate a proposal to allow the fire union president to work on union business full time. That had been included in Mayor Jim Suttle’s earlier proposal that the council rejected last year. In exchange, under the new plan, the city would offer more paid union leave hours but cut some court-ordered vacation time from other employees.

» Create “lead medic” specialty pay (with a 75-cent per hour increase) that’s designed to provide leadership structure inside city paramedic units.

via Council expected to OK Omaha fire union pact – Omaha.com.

Another Fire Union Contract On The Table

The Omaha City Council has announced the latest tentative agreement on a new contract with firefighters. Negotiators say they have the votes to make it stick.

The deal runs through December 2014. It calls for wage increases of an average of 1.6 percent per year over the duration of he contract. The agreement also calls for the end of pension spiking and increases employee contributions to health and pension benefits.

The deal must now gain approval from the union rank and file, the personnel board and then the full City Council.

Deals have been put in front of the rank and file before only to get lost in politics. This time, a committee made the deal, not the mayor’s office, and those on the committee believe that made the difference.

Response From Mayor’s Office

“Mayor Suttle has made pension reform a priority since he’s been in office and negotiated police and fire contracts that brought solvency to the pension system,” said Aida Amoura, spokesman for Mayor Suttle. “He has not seen the tentative agreement reached between firefighters and the City Council nor has he been told specifically what is in the contract. He’s hoping for the best, but wants to make sure taxpayers are given a complete and accurate picture of what has been agreed on before commenting on the new fire contract.”

“Our goals ever since we rejected the mayor’s contract is we wanted more significant health care reform and pension reform, more than what was in the mayor’s agreement,” says Councilwoman Jean Stothert.

The city will save more than $2 million over the life of the deal with firefighters paying more for their pension and health care benefits. “We raised the age of retirement from 45 to 55, the length of service for full pension benefits went from 25 years to 30 years,” says Stothert.

“While both sides probably wish they could have done a little bit better, both sides wish they could have gotten a little bit more I think,” said Steve LeClair of the Firefighters Union. “We finally realized, hey listen, we got as much as we’re going to get, you’ve gotten as much as you’re going to get, we’ve reached that point we’ve got to deal here.”

Members of the negotiating committee believe they should have a deal before the end of the year. “This agreement needs to be approved by the City Council, the mayor has the ability to veto it if he feels like it’s necessary, it is my sense it will have the anonymous vote of the City Council and therefore it would be veto-proof,” says Stothert.

To some — it seems firefighters have spent more time in court and at the negotiating table the last few years than fighting fires.

“I think this is an opportunity for all of us to put this period of contentious history behind us and move forward,” said LeClair.

Stothert is running for mayor. No doubt — the issue will be a big piece of the race.

Mayor Jim Suttle, who is running for re-election, fired back with a statement saying he’s “made pension reform a priority since he’s been in Omaha and negotiated police and fire contracts that brought solvency to the pension system.”

“In the end, it will be the two of them fighting over who could negotiate and did negotiate the best contract,” said Paul Landow — who is a political science professor at UNO and used to be chief-of-staff for Mayor Fahey — the last time a firefighter contract was approved.

We asked for reaction from other major mayoral candidates.

State Senator Brad Ashford: It’s a “good start. This issue is about righting the ship.”

Businessman Dave Nabity: “It looks like grandstanding for political purpose. The Trojan horse is whether there are restrictions for staffing and equipment.”

Former City Councilman Dan Welch: “I am not optimistic that the proposal does much for taxpayer relief or to ensure the solvency of the retirement system for future city employees.”

The firefighters are expected to vote on the proposal in late November.

via Another Fire Union Contract On The Table.

Another Fire Union Contract On The Table

The Omaha City Council has announced the latest tentative agreement on a new contract with firefighters.

The deal runs through December 2014. It calls for wage increases of an average of 1.6 percent per year over the duration of he contract. The agreement also calls for the end of pension spiking and increases employee contributions to health and pension benefits.

The deal must now gain approval from the union rank and file, the personnel board and then the full City Council.

via Another Fire Union Contract On The Table.

Local View: Lincoln fire union contract driven by comparability : Opinion

The executive director of the Lincoln Independent Business Association, Coby Mach, touted his belief that the contract between the city and the Firefighters Union was full of what he called “sweeteners” that went beyond what other city unions received (Local View, Oct. 12, LJS.)

The truth is that the working conditions of the Firefighters have been established over several decades that has involved true comparisons among peer departments. The city of Lincoln and the Firefighters Union have long recognized that “comparability,” as that term has been defined under the law in the state of Nebraska, involves a review of overall compensation based on external comparables rather than internal comparables. Mach should understand this. His views expressed in his October 12, 2012 “article” were deliberately misleading:

• The City only pays 100 percent of the health insurance premium for employees selecting single coverage, which makes up less than 21 percent of the participating employees. The same is true for the employee’s dental plan, which is actually a component of the health plan, and Mach did not mention these facts in his attempt to paint the firefighters as the recipients of a sweetheart deal. This contribution distribution was established by comparability.

• The city deposits money that otherwise would be paid to employees as wages into an account for post-employment health care costs. This amount was arrived at in exchange for actual wage increases, which would have been paid in previous contract years.

• The city does not pay 2 percent bonuses every year to every employee. The city does pay longevity pay for employees employed after five years, which is the direct result of comparability within peer cities.

• Lincoln’s sick leave benefit for firefighters is identical to that provided to police officers in the city, and it is important to note that firefighters work nearly 800 hours more a year than employees assigned to a 40-hour week, such as police and civilians.

• The Ccity tuition reimbursement provision in the collective bargaining agreement is capped at $750 on an annual basis, which can pay for one three-hour course at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln per contract year. That is not a generous benefit and is well below that of our comparable cities. The majority of our members do not use this benefit.

• Union officials are allowed union time to conduct union business, which is consistent with working conditions provided to firefighters throughout our array of comparable cities. It must be remembered Lincoln firefighters are scheduled to work 2,912 hours a year rather than the standard 2,080 hours for a 40-hour week. In Lincoln, these hours are used by 10 union officials for conducting union business.

• It is completely false for Mr. Mach to suggest that the city pays on-call employees for two hours of work when they do not receive a call. If an employee is truly on-call, he is compensated during that period of time.

• It is outrageous for Mach to suggest that it is a “perk” for city employees to be given the option to purchase health insurance through the city after they separate employment when those employees who do so pay 100 percent of the costs associated with that coverage. Without this very expensive option for retirees, we would see increased injuries and disability pensions.

Mach also complains that the average salary of a Lincoln Fire & Rescue employee is $75,750. The top classification represented by our bargaining unit is Fire Captain and Fire Inspector II. That is 69 out of the approximately 280 employees represented, with a top step salary of $76,885 per year making his average figure impossible. Lincoln firefighters work 2,912 hours a year (and don’t receive overtime until after 53 hours a week) instead of the 2,080 hours a year of a 40-hour a week employee, or 832 more hours than a 40-hour employee. ASSUMING Mr. Mach’s numbers are correct (which I don’t believe to be true) and the AVERAGE salary is $75,750, then the average Lincoln firefighter makes $26.01 per hour in comparison to the $30.72 per hour average Lincoln police officer, as cited by Mr. Mach’s $63,888 figure.

The firefighters have negotiated in good faith with the city, and we will continue to do so to ensure that the commitment our members have made to serve the citizens is equaled by the city’s commitment to provide for the safety, wages and benefits our members have earned.

Just as Mr. Mach and LIBA have the right to express an opinion about the salaries and benefits of city employees, city employees have the ability to decide where they choose to spend their salaries. I will choose to spend mine with businesses that support our city employees.

via Local View: Lincoln fire union contract driven by comparability : Opinion.

City, county union workers to get small salary increases : Politics

The Lincoln City Council last week approved a union contract giving more than 600 professionals and entry-level managers a 2 percent raise in each of the next two years, but the new two-year contract comes with slightly raised deductibles and co-pays for health insurance.

It’s typical of union contracts negotiated this year with city and county workers. The trend is small wage increases and small reductions in benefits.

Many city workers are looking at higher deductibles and co-payments for health care. And many unionized county workers no longer have longevity pay — extra money for veteran employees based on their years of service, not their specific job.

Retirement plans for people newly hired to city and county jobs also have been trimmed. The city and county will be contributing less to individual retirement accounts, which are similar to 401K plans in private business.

The county will match contributions for new employees and provide a 1.5-to-1 match for veteran employees.

The city match for new hires is about 1.3 to 1, but veteran workers get a 2-to-1 match.

The city and county cannot change retirement benefits for veteran employees unless the union agrees, thus creating a two-tiered system.

Contracts for the current fiscal year have been negotiated for six of the 11 city and county unions, covering about 1,670 employees. That includes all city workers except firefighters, bus drivers and mechanics.

The raises in those approved union contracts are hovering at about 2 percent for this fiscal year and the next. The Lancaster County Board also gave non-union workers a 2 percent increase this year.

But the percentage increase is only part of the story.

About 40 percent of all city workers still are in their first eight to 10 years, working their way up step or merit plans. They will get a merit raise as well as the general increase.

City Councilman Jon Camp pointed to raises built into the steps during discussion of the contract for entry-level managers and professionals, noting that employees still on the step plan will get another 2.75 to 3.25 percent increase each year.

That means they will see percentage increases in wages of between 9.5 and 11 percent over the two years, he said.

“These are excellent employees. I just have a difficult time, with what is happening in the economy, plus the other (city) benefits, of passing anything this high,” said Camp, the only council member to vote against the contract.

Unions dominate city government, with about 97 percent of 1,946 workers covered by a union plan. At the county level, just more than 53 percent of 858 workers are covered by union contracts.

Personnel costs, including benefits, are the biggest budget cost for both governments, about $65.8 million for the county and about $174.6 million for the city.

Personnel costs make up close to 70 percent of many department budgets, even higher for some.

That’s “extremely significant,” said Deb Schorr, chairwoman of the Lancaster County Board.

“When we talk about a 1 percent increase or a 2 or 3 percent increase, these numbers are significant. But we want to treat everyone fairly,” she said.

Every 1 percent increase in salary for all employees raises city costs by about $1.4 million, according to City Finance Director Steve Hubka. The county needs an additional $500,000 for every 1 percent increase in salary, according to Dennis Meyer, county budget director.

Elected officials say they have only limited control over personnel costs. In disputes, the state’s Commission on Industrial Relations looks at wages of like employees in similar cities and counties in other states to determine whether a union contract is fair.

Thus, negotiations tend to center around wages for other government workers in other communities.

“The state comparability law is the main factor that determines salaries,” said Rick Hoppe, the mayor’s chief of staff. “Unions have been cooperative and we have been able to keep raises to a reasonable level.”

via City, county union workers to get small salary increases : Politics.

Local View: Fire union “perks” should be eliminated : Opinion

On Aug. 31, the labor contract between the city and the Firefighters Union expired.

As negotiations for the new contract move forward, the Lincoln Independent Business Associatioon calls upon the union to be reasonable and receptive to the elimination of “sweeteners” or contract perks. Many of these sweeteners go far and above what other city unions receive. Here are some examples of employee benefits and sweeteners that taxpayers provided in the 2011-2012 fire union contract:

* The city must pay 100 percent of an employee’s Health Care plan.

* The city must pay 100 percent of an employee’s Dental plan.

* The city must deposit $1,304 per employee, per year, into an account to pay for the employee’s POST-employment health care.

* The city must pay a 2 percent bonus every year, to every employee who has worked at least five years.

* Employees receive 12 sick days every year. Accrual of unused sick leave is unlimited, and the city must pay the employee 60 percent of accrued sick leave upon retirement.

* The city must pay capped tuition reimbursement for courses in criminal justice, natural science, law, business administration, English, speech, computer science and the humanities.

* The city must allow union officials 1,500 hours of paid time off to conduct union business. If union negotiations took eight hours a day, this is equivalent to 187 days off with pay. (Other city unions average less than 200 hours)

* The city must facilitate and pay for the collection of the union’s dues.

* The city must pay on-call employees for two hours of work, even if they don’t receive a call.

* Retired employees must be allowed to participate in the city’s health care plan. They must pay the city’s premium but may use money deposited by the city into the employee’s account.

* If the fire chief is going to terminate an employee, that employee must be given 10 days’ notice prior to the firing.

* If an individual is assigned an official car, he or she cannot be required to wash it.

* If an employee is reprimanded, the reprimand must be removed from his or her personnel file after one year.

If these perks existed to make up for low salaries, one might not be as concerned. However, the average wage of a Lincoln Fire & Rescue employee is $75,750. This does not include the city’s contribution to the defined benefit retirement program or other benefits.

By comparison, the Lincoln Police Department’s average wage is $63,888.

Our Fire & Rescue employees deserve a fair salary and benefits package, however, we wonder whether these contracts have become more than the community can afford.

via Local View: Fire union “perks” should be eliminated : Opinion.

Judge mulls request to block fire contract – Omaha.com

The future of a labor contract between the City of Omaha and four top Fire Department officials remained uncertain Thursday as a judge considered a request to block the contract from going into effect.

The complaint was filed by Nathan Keenan, a member of the Omaha Police Officers Association. He said the city’s approval of the contract last month was illegal because it disregarded the recommendations of an actuary.

Wayne Adams, an Indianapolis-based labor attorney representing the police association, told Douglas County District Judge Thomas Otepka that the city must look to an actuary’s findings before approving changes to pension contribution rates.

In this case, Adams said, the eventual agreement disregarded the most recent actuary’s report, which was completed in June 2011.

But Bernard in den Bosch, assistant city attorney, told Otepka that there’s no specific provision that calls for every labor contract to match up with the actuary’s findings about how much money should be going into pension funds.

He said the fire management contract was modeled after other police and fire contracts and said the number of people involved in the disputed contract was so small, it could be considered “actuarily insignificant.”

In den Bosch suggested that the lawsuit had been filed primarily because the discussions over police and fire contracts had turned into a “political battle.”

Adams said his client doesn’t aim to prevent the fire administrators from getting an approved contract but wants to ensure that the city is following the law.

The contract is on hold for the time being through a temporary restraining order, but Keenan is seeking to expand that to a temporary injunction.

Otepka is now considering the arguments but has not set another court date for the matter.

via Judge mulls request to block fire contract – Omaha.com.

Thanks to SIDs, Nebraska has the most Chapter 9 bankruptcies

The nearly empty E Street Mall in San Bernardino, Calif., is shown on Wednesday, July 11, 2012. The San Bernardino city council voted Tuesday night in favor of the city filing for bankruptcy. City officials have said, San Bernardino “has an immediate cash flow issue” and may not be able to make payroll with a budget shortfall of more than $45 million in the next fiscal year. (AP Photo/Grant Hindsley)
Read more: http://journalstar.com/ap/business/thanks-to-sids-nebraska-has-the-most-chapter-bankruptcies/article_523813c8-c544-5982-8833-cb5f0bf2671d.html#ixzz20p126XdN

Quirks in local, state and federal law have made Nebraska home to almost one-fifth of the more than 220 Chapter 9 bankruptcies filed in the United States since 1981, according to a Bloomberg News review of federal court records.

Chapter 9 is in the news as San Bernardino, Calif., population 210,000, became the third California city to seek federal bankruptcy protection in less than two weeks. Chapter 9 applies primarily to municipalities, but also to other taxing entities, including hospital authorities and school districts.

In Nebraska, no cities have filed for bankruptcy, but Chapter 9 has been used by Sanitary and Improvement Districts, statutory taxing authorities unique to Nebraska and used by developers to create residential areas on the fringes of cities, without all the powers of cities.

California is second in Chapter 9 filings, followed by Texas and Alabama. Those states, along with Oklahoma, account for more than half of all Chapter 9 filings in U.S. bankruptcy courts.

The main difference between Nebraska and its larger brethren is the kind of governmental bodies that file for bankruptcy. All 45 of Nebraska’s Chapter 9 cases were by the special tax districts, most of them owned by residential subdivision developers who used property-tax revenue to pay for streets, sewers and other infrastructure.

Chapter 9, used by local governments and entities they create, differs significantly from Chapter 11, the section written for private companies and nonprofit groups. State lawmakers must pass a law authorizing local governmental bodies to file for bankruptcy before they can do so.

About half of the states allow full, or conditional, access to bankruptcy court, according to a legal analysis by Jim Spiotto, a bankruptcy attorney with Chapman & Cutler in Chicago who helped write a book about municipalities in financial distress.

Nebraska grants Sanitary and Improvement Districts unobstructed access to bankruptcy courts, said Brian C. Doyle, a land-use attorney in Omaha who represents bankrupt subdivisions.

For cities and counties, filing a Chapter 9 case is more difficult because it requires a vote of elected officials.

Once in bankruptcy, Chapter 9 gives cities and counties an advantage over companies using Chapter 11 to reorganize. Municipalities don’t need to ask the bankruptcy court for permission to pay any bills they ran up before filing for court protection, including wages, utility bills and rents.

That means creditors can’t put as much pressure on a city over its spending habits, as sometimes happens in Chapter 11 cases, said Lee Bogdanoff, an attorney with Klee Tuchin Bogdanoff & Stern.  The firm represents Alabama’s Jefferson County, which filed the biggest municipal bankruptcy in the U.S. last year, listing more than $4 billion in debt.

In Nebraska, Chapter 9 bankruptcies are more like prepackaged Chapter 11 cases because the district owners and creditors most often work out an agreement beforehand, Doyle said.  Those deals almost always guarantee full repayment of bondholders’ principal, stretched over a longer period of time and at a lower interest rate, Doyle said.

Most of the Sanitary and Improvement Districts in Nebraska are around Omaha, Doyle said. Lincoln won’t allow Sanitary and Improvement Districts to attach themselves to city services, which discourages their creation.

In the next two years, as many as 10 more of the special districts may go bankrupt as debt comes due for subdivisions built during the housing slump that followed the credit crisis, Doyle said.

via Thanks to SIDs, Nebraska has the most Chapter 9 bankruptcies.

Ulring one of four finalists for Omaha police chief | Recordnet.com

Former Stockton  Police Chief Blair Ulring is a finalist to be the top cop in Omaha, Neb.

The Omaha World-Herald newspaper has reported that Ulring is one of four finalists to take the reins in the nation’s 42nd largest city. Omaha has a population of 427,872, according to the city’s website.

Ulring, 52, retired last July after the Stockton City Council denied him a raise to offset other pay cuts that would have jeopardized the amount of money he would be paid through his pension.

He was also a finalist earlier this year for the police chief post in Flagstaff, Ariz., before officials there chose another candidate.

via Ulring one of four finalists for Omaha police chief | Recordnet.com.