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SHERIDAN — An arbitration panel hired to settle a pay dispute between the City of Sheridan and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 276 has determined the city should give raises to the firefighters of Sheridan Fire-Rescue.
The union had asked for an additional 2 percent in pay for each grade and step but the arbitrators recommended a 4 percent increase for each grade and step in addition to a 6 percent increase to offset contributions into the firefighters’ pension plan.
The negotiation team consisted of Amy Jenkins as the neutral party, Jeff Hamilton representing the union and Tom Kinnison representing the city.
The trio heard oral arguments in the beginning of December and issued the written decision this week.
Kinnison said the 4 percent pay increase, which is retroactive back to Jan. 1, will settle the longstanding dispute between the two sides.
“Hopefully, the decision is one that will stop the continued arbitration and going to court by both parties,” he said, adding that there are concerns that other city employees have not received raises for several years.
While the firefighters’ union doesn’t negotiate for non-union members, Kinnison said their Collective Bargaining Agreement still has an effect on perceptions from all city employees.
“We want to treat all city employees fairly and the same,” he said indicating he hopes the 4 percent pay increase acts as an olive branch to help both sides move forward.
“When we went through negotiation, I think we did a pretty good job of showing how the cost of living here has gone up quite a bit,” IAFF Local 276 President George Neeson said.
“We were shooting for two percent to be moderate and not put any pressure on the city’s financial ability. Four percent is more than we asked for, but it’s only retroactive for half the year,” Neeson said, adding that from his perspective, the biggest victory is the increase will carry into the future.
Other issues brought up at the arbitration hearing included propositions from both sides of the negotiation to change wording associated with a contract clause that dealt with the firefighters’ health insurance and contributions into Health Savings Accounts. While the firefighters asked the city to increase the amount it paid into the HSAs, the city countered the offer with a proposal that the firefighters have the option to participate in the same health insurance plan as other city employees. The city’s proposed language of the contract leaves the terms of health insurance offered open-ended and subject to change, while the union version of the amendment spells out obligations for the city. The panel determined no change should be made to that portion of the contract, but that the city would offer no increased contribution.
The city also wanted the firefighters to contribute a larger percentage of their paychecks into their own pension program, to which the arbitrators concurred, with the caveat that the payments were offset by increased pay.
According to the arbitration decision, “Such salary increase shall fully compensate the firefighters for the increase in their contribution to (the pension plan), by whatever mechanism the parties determine to be appropriate. The intent of this panel is to shift the payment obligation from the City to the firefighters in such manner so as to make the firefighters whole for that…contribution.”
Neeson said he’s relieved the pension plan contributions, which have fluctuated in the past, will be settled now.
“We’re happy because it’s something we won’t have to argue about anymore. It won’t be a point of contention,” Neeson said.
Kinnison called the agreement a neutral transaction because though the way the money ended up in the pension plan would be slightly modified, neither party would see a difference in their pre-existing financial arrangement.
The city also contested a request from the union that employees who received a satisfactory annual performance review would receive a step increase, but that for the contract year in negotiation, no step increases would be granted.
The panel recommended the language of the article be changed to read the firefighters “may” receive the step increase and must consider the city’s financial ability to pay. This year, step increases will remain frozen.
“We’re not really happy about how subjective the language is that they came up with,” Neeson said, adding that the word “may” is open for differing interpretations.
Kinnison explained the intent was to foster an environment of cooperation.
“The ‘may’ is the fact that the decision of what the city can and can’t fund should be left up to elected officials,” he said. “Hopefully, we don’t have to hear about this anymore,” Kinnison added. “Let’s stop fighting and work together.”