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City OKs 3-year deal with firefighters in Sterling

Not much progress in police negotiations

STERLING – The city approved a new 3-year labor contract with its firefighters union at a special city council meeting Monday.

The union, IAFF Local 2301, had ratified the contract June 14, but there wasn’t enough time to get it on the agenda for the June 16 council meeting. Requests to add agenda items must be received at least 48 hours before the meeting.

So the city decided to call a special council meeting to speed up the process.

“They bargained in good faith, so a special meeting was called because it would have been awhile until the next meeting, City Manager Scott Shumard said. The next regular council meeting is July 7.

The firefighters will get a 1.75 percent raise in the first and second years of the deal, and a 2.5 percent raise in the final year, for a total of 6 percent over the life of the contract.

Lt. Matt Laughlin, the fire department’s union representative, said wages and salaries were the only components of the new contract that were negotiated. The benefits did not change from the previous contract.

“We think it’s a fair compromise between the city and firefighters union,” Laughlin said. “We compromised on everything; there really wasn’t much subtle diplomacy. They presented some numbers, we did too, and they were pretty close.”

The biggest challenge this time around was changing contract language to bring the three captains into the union fold. Until now, the captains had not been under city contract, and had been “at-will” employees. Labor law dictates that “at-will” employees do not have some of the protections afforded by a union contract, especially with regard to termination.

Language had already been changed in April for the new deputy chief position.

“From the get-go, we knew there would be a lot of language changes to bring the captains under the umbrella,” Laughlin said. “By law, the captains can’t go down in pay because they joined the union. They were all at different longevity levels, so we had to compromise on where they fall on the scale.”

The previous contract had expired April 30, which triggered an automatic extension. The first negotiating session between the city and the firefighters union was Feb. 13.

Despite the missed deadline, both sides thought the process went smoothly in comparison with previous contracts.

“We always try to get this done by expiration, but the city manager has a lot going on,” Laughlin said.

Shumard concurred with Laughlin’s assessment of the negotiations.

“They went very well this year,” Shumard said. “Things were drawn out, just because there was other stuff going on that the city was dealing with.”

One of those things would be trying to hammer out a deal with the police union. That contract expired in April 2013.

Shumard said there is nothing new on that negotiating front. The process, generally speaking, can be very different with police and fire contracts, he said.

“Things can be more fractured with police,” Shumard said. “There are more unions vying for membership, and it can get very competitive.”

The city lost three firefighter positions in 2010, which were never brought back. Laughlin hopes that the administrative consolidation with Rock Falls will eventually save enough money to at least keep the department at current staffing levels.

“I think we’re all on the same page,” Laughlin said. “It’s refreshing that we’re making progress with labor relations.”

Mayor Skip Lee agreed that the negotiating environment has improved from years past.

“Both sides were very eager to reach a deal in a manner that was respectful and not adversarial,” Lee said. “I want to commend city staff and union workers for remembering that the safety of the citizens are our main responsibility.”

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