After receiving what essentially amounted to a pay first, talk later ultimatum from Snohomish County Fire District 1, the Edmonds City Council voted 5-0 Tuesday night to cover a $1.6 million invoice for retroactive wage increases for the district’s firefighters and paramedics– then work toward fixing the original city-Fire District 1 agreement to avoid future billing surprises.
Councilmember Lora Petso abstained from voting, stating that the Fire District had not responded to all of the questions the city raised about the increase. “I do not have sufficient information to determine what is due,” she said.
Mayor Dave Earling and city councilmembers were taken aback last August when Fire District 1 presented the city with the invoice — originally for $1.67 million — following settlement of a union contract with Local 1828. Since that time, Earling and Finance Director Scott James have had 12 meetings with Fire District 1 officials to take a closer look at the numbers and determine next steps.
On Tuesday night, Earling, James and City Attorney Jeff Taraday outlined what has taken place since that invoice was received and the options available to the city.
“Candidly, it has been very difficult getting some of the information from the Fire District that we have requested over the last several months,” Earling told the council. “In addition, until we pay the bill they are not willing to entertain any negotiation with the text (of the contract).
James explained that he and Councilmember Petso had an opportunity to meet with representatives from the Washington State Auditor’s Office, who had recently completed an audit of Fire District 1’s financial statements. “The bottom line is, the auditors found that their (Fire District 1’s) cost increases were justified,” James said.
James attributed the large bill to the fact that Local 1828 had deferred wage increases during the economic downturn and “they had a lot of ground to make up” when negotiating a two-year contract that included retroactive pay increases.
When Edmonds, along with the cities of Mountlake Terrace and Brier, received bills last August for two years of retroactive pay, representatives from all three cities indicated they were taken aback by the amount of the increase. Earling and James said in an interview Oct. 1 that all signs they saw pointed to minimal increases.
But in an interview with My Edmonds News on Oct. 22, Fire District 1 Chief Ed Widdis said the cities shouldn’t have been surprised by the increase, since it really represents a 3.5 percent annual increase over five years, given that two years of pay was deferred. “Yeah, maybe they (the cities) didn’t pay like they did in 2010-11 because everything was status quo,” Widdis said. “We enjoyed that in the sense of not paying for it for four years but it (the increase) will get you sooner or later,” he said.
Taraday told the council Tuesday night Edmonds has no choice but to pay the invoice. “The city received a service from the Fire District and the city now has to pay for that service,” the city attorney said, noting that “the auditor has confirmed that what we are being billed for is the actual cost of the service.”
Taraday added that it creates major problems for the city to not to be able to identify its fire costs at the time it is preparing its budget — which was the situation that occurred last fall because Fire District 1 was still in contract negotiations. The city had been hopeful that the Fire District would be open to trading the city’s willingness to pay the bill for changes to the contract language aimed at addressing future billing procedures, but “that is not going to happen,” Taraday said.
Instead, with the city’s agreement that it will begin making quarterly payments over two years to cover the bill, the Fire District will reopen negotiations on the contract, beginning in February. Among the changes the city will push for during those negotiations:
– Requiring supporting documentation from Fire District 1 for the financial formula that guides contract negotiations for proposed firefighter salary increases.
– Requiring that the Fire District submit to the city by Aug. 31 of each year “a reasonably probable range” for both how much labor costs will increase and the city’s contract payment for the next year. Those ranges — to be developed by “an independent consultant who specializes in representing management in labor negotiations” — are aimed at allowing the city to budget for “a reasonable worst cases resolution of any ongoing labor negotiations.”
– Adding two city-appointed representatives to attend bargaining sessions between Fire District 1 and Local 1828. These representatives wouldn’t be able to vote on the contract but would be able to observe proceedings and ask questions.
– Requiring that the District Fire Chief, during his annual report to the City Council, “present various options for providing services to the City more efficiently and/or more effectively under the agreement.”
James noted that the Fire District did agree to reduce the $1.67 million bill by $63,631.19 — bringing the total retroactive invoice to $1,604,060.81. The reason was that the Fire Marshal assigned to Edmonds “had to share a portion of his Edmonds work schedule with service areas outside the City,” James said, adding that a similar situation existed for the Fire District’s public education staff.
In another action item during Tuesday’s meeting, which was mostly a study session, the council authorized by a 5-1 vote approval of a lease agreement between the city and the Edmonds Senior Center. The agreement will allow the center to move forward with a fundraising campaign for a new multi-generational activity center. The plan is to replace the existing city-owned waterfront facility at 220 Railroad Ave., which has serious structural problems including a sinking first floor, inefficient design and seismic concerns. Councilmember Kristiana Johnson voted against the measure, stating the council should “pause and reflect” before agreeing to a “$20 million decision.” She also expressed concerns that the senior center is located on the other side of the railroad tracks, where emergency access is an ongoing concern due to increasing train traffic.
The council also:
– heard presentations on the Edmonds Downtown Alliance Grants Program, a supplemental agreement for the final feasibility study of the Willow Creek Daylight project, and Master Use and Site Use Agreements for installation, operation and maintenance of Sprint wireless equipment in the city right of way.
– discussed draft ordinances aimed at consolidating and clarifying the city’s animal regulations, which will be the subject of a public hearing during the Feb. 3 council meeting. Assistant Police Chief Jim Lawless and Development Director Shane Hope noted that the proposed changes are mainly aimed at addressing animal-related disturbances — in particular those involving barking dogs. The idea is to replace an automatic misdemeanor charge for an animal making continuous noise, with a system of graduated fines that could escalate to a possible misdemeanor for the owner of a repeat offender.
– continued discussion of the Draft Land Use Element for the city’s 2015 Comprehensive Plan Update. Hope noted that the city will host an open house Feb. 25 for citizens so they can learn more about the Comprehensive Plan. It will run from 5:30-7 p.m. in the third-floor Brackett Room of City Hall.