East Pierce reverses layoffs, agrees to new package

East Pierce Fire and Rescue will no longer be laying off seven employees at the end of January. Amid strong complaints from the public, East Pierce commissioners voted unanimously to accept a new memorandum of understanding between the fire department and the department’s union, Local 3520. This new agreement effectively negates the commissioners’ Dec. 16 decision to lay off four firefighters, two temporary firefighters and one receptionist.

“Everybody who was originally laid off is not laid off,” said Fire Commissioner Dale Mitchell. “This takes back all of that.”The decision to lay off staff was made in order to mitigate a $1 million deficit in East Pierce’s 2015 budget, which was balanced with the use of ending net cash and reserve funds. Fire Chief Jerry Thorson, the commissioners and Local 3520 President Mike Westland agreed the $1 million deficit was not sustainable, and the department needed to find other ways to save money instead of taking it out of reserves.Only five of the seven commissioners could attend the special meeting, and the commissioners spent over an hour in executive session before adopting the memorandum.

Thorson said the new memorandum is the first step towards a healthier fire department. “We’ve been through five or six years of the worst financial times the fire service in Washington state has experienced,” Thorson said. “In an effort to resolve (issues) and move forward and start the healing process, I think this is the first step.”

What is in the new memorandum?

Both Thorson and Westland said the biggest points of disagreement over previous memorandums were cost of living adjustments, special operations teams and where any extra funds should be spent.

According to the memorandum of understanding document, dated Dec. 23, union employees will defer their 2 percent cost of living adjustment until Nov. 30, 2015.

Thorson said all non-union staff, including him, will also defer their cost of living adjustment until the end of November.

All employees will receive their cost of living adjustment after Nov. 30.

Employees will also receive a planned 2 percent cost of living adjustment for 2016.

Also according to the memorandum, special operations teams, including water rescue, hazardous materials and wild fire response will be suspended for six months until June 30, 2015.

The memorandum also outlines that any increase with assessed property values and property taxes shall be used to enhance the safety of personnel and department operations, like what East Pierce and union call the “training bank”.

Other points in the memorandum include bringing minimum staffing of the fire district down to 21 firefighters and preserving some form of CPR classes in public schools. These items were agreed on by East Pierce and Local 3520 in past discussions.

Finally, the current collective bargaining agreement will be rolled over for one year until 2016.

Public distraught

According to Mitchell, he and the other commissioners received numerous letters and emails about their decision to lay off firefighters.

“We’ve tried to stay fiduciarily responsible in putting this thing together,” Mitchell said. “It is hard for many people to understand that. I say that because I have received, and the rest of the board received, several letters from folks in the community who are very distraught over what we have done and said that we made some bad mistakes.”

According to Mitchell, some of the emails the commissioners received called for their resignation before the next commissioner election. Ron Scholz, Karlynne McGinnis, Mike Cathy and Mitchell will be up for election in the fall.

Mitchell said that he will remain a commissioner for the rest of his term and run again for re-election.

Financial sustainability and future levies

Even though the new memorandum of understanding reverses the commissioner’s decision to lay off staff, Mitchell and Thorson said these concessions are not enough for a stable long-term financial plan.

“That was one of the sticking points between the district and the local, was whether we were looking at a long-term deal or a one-year thing,” Thorson said after the Dec. 23 meeting. “Part of what the board agreed to do was agree to the union’s desire to make it a short-term agreement.”Both Thorson and Mitchell said East Pierce plans to run another levy in the future, though the decision of whether the levy will run during a special election or the next general election is up in the air.

“We are going to have to have another levy,” said Mitchell. “No fire department can sustain itself without some sort of special levy.”

The next step

According to Westland, the next step to implement the new memorandum is have union members vote on the memorandum. By press deadline, Local 3520 planned to meet on Monday, Dec. 29, to discuss the memorandum and give union employees a week to vote on the package.

Results of the vote will be available by early January.

Additionally, the special commissioners meeting scheduled for Dec. 31 has been canceled.