Baltimore's fire unions have tentatively agreed to take five furlough days between now and next June and to accept a wage freeze after that as their share of cuts demanded by the city to help close a $60.2 million budget gap.
Members of the unions representing 1,600 firefighters and officers will vote on the agreement Wednesday, knowing that if the agreement is rejected, the dispute would probably be resolved in binding arbitration that could end with a salary cut endorsed by the city this week, union officials said.
"Things are bad, things are tough," said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the union representing 335 fire officers. "But we did have an opportunity to protect our members' interest, and I think we did."
Because firefighters would take furloughs during vacation time, the plan would not reduce the city's firefighting force on any given day, Fugate said.
He said the agreement, reached after a week of talks among union representatives consulting occasionally with city officials, would avoid layoffs. The proposal, Fugate said, "limits our exposure to further cuts."
Bob Sledgeski, head of the union representing about 1,300 firefighters, declined to discuss specifics of the tentative agreement but said "we came up with a compromise that we think works for everyone."
He said he did not think members would be "happy" about the proposal, but "they will listen. I think it has a fairly good chance of passing, but I sure wouldn't bet the bank on it. ... It will be very difficult for my members to put aside their anger over the treatment they've received from the Dixon administration," he said, referring to what he considered the mayor's "lack of support" for the department.
He said the tentative agreement meets the city's target of roughly $2.9 million in Fire Department concessions as its share of $8 million in public safety cuts. The $60.2 million shortfall emerged in the $2.3 billion city budget during the summer as a result of declining local tax revenue and cuts in state aid.
The city is also seeking $5 million in savings from the police union, which has not settled on a proposal yet.
A spokesman for Mayor Sheila Dixon said the mayor was pleased with the tentative fire unions' agreements and hoped the membership would approve them.
Dixon "appreciates their leadership working with us to come to a conclusion," said Scott Peterson. "We hope for the same cooperation with the police union as well."
Representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police, representing roughly 3,000 active-duty city officers, are working on a plan to present to their members.
FOP president Robert F. Cherry said last night, "We're still in negotiations with the mayor. ... we're committed to reaching an agreement." He said no meetings were held with city representatives Thursday and he would not elaborate on the union's proposal for an agreement.
Concessions by the public safety unions, which have resisted calls for furloughs until now, would be the last piece of what Peterson called a "mid-year" cut for the budget year that began July 1.
Unlike with other municipal unions, police and fire contracts bar the city from imposing furloughs.
Last month, the city announced a furlough plan for other city workers designed to save $13.5 million. Before next July, nearly 11,000 workers making $50,000 or less will take five furlough days; nearly 6,000 employees making $50,000 to $100,000 will take eight days and nearly 150 making more than $100,000 would take 10 days. The arrangement includes police and fire commanders who are not represented by unions.
Citing their contract protections, police and fire unions have been resisting furloughs, but the Dixon administration has pushed hard for the measure.
This week, Dixon pressed for and won the Board of Estimates' endorsement of a police and fire salary cut. The 3-1 vote does not cut salaries but puts the unions on notice that the move could be made if the negotiations for concessions failed.
Sledgeski pointed out that the two unions are the only ones in the city subject to binding arbitration, which would likely be the next step if the proposal is rejected. For his members, he said, that's "a crap shoot at best."
Fugate said that in the event the members of both unions reject the proposal, he expects the city to impose what would amount to a 3.08-percent wage cut, "which I believe is their legal right to do."
While the unpaid vacation day provision is "not sitting very well" with fire officers, Fugate said, "I'm fairly confident I can sell the deal to my members."
To make the deal more appealing, the proposal makes a few rule changes that union members have been supporting for some time. Limits on vacation swaps would be loosened, and members would no longer be required to wear their uniforms when out in public on sick leave. The proposal also would cut the number of firefighters who must be trained in Advanced Life Support, meaning some who have wanted to quit the program could do so.
Sledgeski said the negotiations "were made even more difficult because Mayor Dixon's administration has already cut the Fire Department's budget to the bone. ... There aren't 10 excess dollars in the budget since last year."