Firefighters Union Calls Conditions On Acceptance Of $1.67 Million Grant ‘Unreasonable’

JACKSON, MI – The Jackson firefighters union called the conditions the City Council placed on its acceptance of a grant to hire nine firefighters “unreasonable” and “detrimental to our membership.”

“The city of Jackson council and mayor have failed the residents, business owners and firefighters of the city,” Scott Stoker, president of the Summit-Jackson Professional Firefighters Union Local 1306, said in a statement.

The city is “again misleading the public,” the union contends, and looking for the union to fund the hiring of new firefighters – almost entirely paid for by the $1.67 million grant – through cuts to wages and pension benefits, which already have been reduced.

Stoker said the union will continue to negotiate in “good faith,” but he is not optimistic an agreement can be reached before Oct. 18, the deadline.

Members of the City Council on Tuesday voted 6-1 to give City Manager Patrick Burtch the authority to take the award, but only if the city and the union can agree on several issues in ongoing contract negotiations. These include wages; length of service and cap for full-service pensions; health insurance; employment of grant-funded employees.

Only Councilman Freddie Dancy voted against the motion, saying he supports accepting the grant without conditions, and the union praised him for standing up for firefighters, businesses and residents.

Without a new agreement, it is difficult to know how much the city will need to spend from its general fund, Mayor Bill Jors said in a statement. The city could accept the money and then be responsible for any excess costs when the grant money runs out, said Will Forgrave, city public information officer.

When the grant was written and approved, the per-firefighter cost was calculated high to safeguard against any potential increases associated with a new agreement, according to the union.

Stoker said the city would have to agree to an unlikely high wage hike to close the gap between what was budgeted in the grant application and the current starting salary – $37,090 compared to $39,861.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency offered the city in August the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant to hire nine firefighters for a mandatory two years starting in February.

It was the second time the city received such an award. The city accepted a $1.9 million grant in 2012. Union concessions prolonged the length of time the city was able to keep the nine positions – for about three years instead of two – but none of the positions were retained.

The 2012 grant covered all expenses connected to the hires except for about $109,000 in costs that included a $56,000 grant-writing fee. This year, the fee was much less – about $3,000. Most of the remaining costs were equipment-related.

Stoker said firefighters do not want to lose the grant, but the city’s demands are “pretty drastic.”

“We have to learn from history, have to learn from what happened in 2012,” he said.

The union made compromises in hopes that the city would keep some of the firefighters. “But that didn’t happen,” Stoker said. “They still let them all go.”

Stoker said in two years, the city fire department will be back to its current staffing levels, a historic low.

And cuts are not necessary, he said. The grant overfunds the hires.

“It’s just another way they are trying to use it as a bargaining tool,” Stoker said of city leaders.

The mayor said the bargaining team has been unable to engage the union in “any meaningful negotiations.”

No members of the City Council are involved in contract negotiations and the union, disputing the mayor’s assertion, blames the city manager for the failure to reach an agreement.

“I’ve cleared my schedule and I’m available to negotiate at the union’s convenience,” Burtch said in a statement. “While the city has highlighted more than 100 issues it wants to address in the current contract… all we’re asking is to come to an agreement on a handful of them before we accept the grant.”

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