The recently concluded negotiations between the office of Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. and the bargaining units for Tulsa's police and fire departments resulted in vastly different outcomes for the city's two primary public safety entities.
Firefighters voted to accept pay cuts and other benefits concessions, saving 147 jobs in the process. Police officers agreed to some concessions that helped save 31 positions through the end of the fiscal year, but that move was not enough to eliminate layoffs for 124 officers.
Why did firefighters go for their deal, while police officers refused theirs? Representatives of the two bargaining units claim the proposals featured substantial differences, despite characterizations from city officials that they were similar.
"The reason we didn't take it is because (Bartlett) didn't offer us the same thing," said Phil Evans, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 93. "You can track his statements through the media and see that."
Stan May, president of Firefighters Local 176, said circumstances between his union and the police lodge were completely different.
"Had our circumstances been closer, I'm sure we would have voted the same," he said.
Representatives of the mayor's office have maintained the agreements were similar in the areas of length of agreement, salary savings and savings from furloughs.
Evans said that as negotiations continued between his lodge and the city, the offers from the mayor's office kept getting worse instead of better, from his perspective. Ultimately, the city presented police officers with what amounted to an ultimatum, Evans said, and officers rejected it.
"It was the biggest vote turnout we've had," he said. "And we voted to stand by our contract. I want to make one thing clear to people: We didn't vote to lay off anybody. We voted to stand by our contract."
The FOP vote was 583-66 against accepting the city's proposal.
Firefighters agreed to the deal the city offered them to avoid layoffs, but only grudgingly, according to the head of their union.
"This is not a deal we would have crafted under normal times," May said. "But then again, these are not normal times."
May said most firefighters simply believed they had no alternative but to accept the proposed cuts, which essentially amounted to a pay cut of $304 per firefighter per month. He pointed out that more than 90 percent of union members voted on the deal, with 71 percent of them agreeing to it. The final vote was 442-177.
"I can tell you nobody liked this contract. Nobody liked the terms," he said.
"But we voted for it because of the times we're in and because nobody wanted to see 147 firefighters laid off indefinitely because we didn't know when they'd come back. That's why our membership voted to accept this proposal."
May said a brief negotiating window and the fact that no other area public safety agencies are able to provide the services the Tulsa Fire Department does left the union with no options. Whereas the Tulsa County Sheriff's Department was asked about the possibility of helping fill the law enforcement gaps that might arise from a smaller Tulsa Police Department, May said no other local fire department is in a position from a manpower perspective to fill that potential void in Tulsa.
"We don't have that with the Fire Department," he said. "We can't count on Berryhill, Skiatook or Broken Arrow to come in behind us. We can help them, but very rarely do they have the opportunity to help us."
Ultimately, though, it was the potential damage to their reputation that motivated many firefighters to go for the deal, May said.
"Our public image is what drives a lot of our members," he said. "We chose to take the cuts and work on the finances later. Most of our members couldn't see saying, 'Your safety isn't more important than our paychecks.' We believed the city was going to suffer more than our firefighters. Public perception is much more important than money. And we didn't have a backup."
May emphasized he didn't intend to imply that police officers felt differently. In fact, he said, there was and is a great deal of common ground between officers and firefighters.
"We stand behind them," May said. "If we were looking at the same package they believed they were, we might have turned it down for the same reasons."
Bartlett asked city department heads in early December to prepare recommendations for reductions of up to 4.4 percent. Those recommendations were due by Dec. 18. Tulsa Fire Chief Allen LaCroix responded with a proposal that would have led to the layoff of up to 120 firefighters, while Tulsa Police Chief Ron Palmer said up to 135 officers could lose their jobs.
The Fire Department was charged with coming up with $2.5 million in reductions in order to help the city meet its budget, while the Police Department was ordered to find $3.4 million in cuts.
The mayor began meeting with the firefighters union and the police lodge in early January to discuss the cuts. Existing contracts with each of those bargaining units meant city officials lacked the authority to impose any of the proposed reductions, leaving the prospect of layoffs as its leverage to get firefighters and police officers to agree to salary and benefits cuts.
Evans said the FOP received three proposals as alternatives to the layoffs from the city during the next several days, the last of which came on Monday, Jan. 25. That proposal included provisions for returning all personnel to five eight-hour shifts per week, as opposed to four 10-hour shifts, the continuation of furlough days into the next fiscal year and the elimination of satisfactory performance increases for the next fiscal year. Evans said the latter two elements made officers particularly unhappy.
"That had never been down on the (bargaining) table before," he said, adding that those proposals led some lodge members to conclude the mayor wanted them to turn down the city's offer.
They did, voting overwhelmingly against the proposal on Jan. 27. The mayor issued a strongly worded statement in the wake of that vote.
"We gave the union an option with salary concessions and no layoffs, and, unfortunately, they chose to lay off several of their fellow police officers," Bartlett stated. "It has been our intent all along to address public safety first and foremost and live within our means as a city.
"This was the best offer for the safety of the people of Tulsa," the mayor continued. "The union has decided to put their interest ahead of those they serve. This is regrettable ... The people of Tulsa were let down tonight by the very people they hired and trained to protect them."
By that point, the number of police officers projected to face layoffs had ballooned to 155. Some last-minute negotiating between the mayor's office and the FOP, along with a handful of resignations from the department, resulted in a pair of memorandums of understanding, or MOUs, that wound up saving $566,000 in benefit concessions involving the department's take-home car program for officers outside the city limits and the process by which the department uses compensatory time. Those agreements allowed the city to rescind 31 of the layoff notices it had sent to officers. But 124 still lost their jobs.
"I am glad we are able to rescind these layoffs based on these savings for the rest of the year," Bartlett said. "There certainly was an opportunity to save more jobs through our no-layoff proposal to the union."
Evans rejected the notion that senior officers simply voted to protect their own interests, leaving less-experienced officers to be laid off.
"It really was heart rending," he said. "On the night we had the vote, only 66 people voted for the mayor's proposal when 158 people were going to get laid off. That in itself tells you how bad (the offer) is. And if I were to venture a guess, I would say that most of those votes (to accept the deal) came from people who were not going to be laid off."
Meanwhile, firefighters were still considering their deal. The mayor pushed his acceptance deadline back a few days in order to give the union time to act on its proposal. Union officials announced Jan. 31 that members had voted in favor of the deal.
May said the reason his union's approval came at the last minute was that it took several days to put the proposal together, receive legal approval for its language, then present it to union members for voting.
When union officials laid the deal out for members, May said he didn't hear much dissent.
"There were not a lot of arguments over the wording," May said. "There were a lot of questions, like 'What if the economy doesn't come back?' and 'What if the mayor's office doesn't participate in these cuts?' which we're seeing now.
"But we didn't have the luxury of time. If this was a normal negotiation period of a couple of months, it would have been different. But we were up against a deadline, and we knew what the consequences were if we didn't meet it."
May acknowledged that the proposals forwarded to the two bargaining units might have appeared similar, but he cited key differences between them.
"The police were being asked to change their working conditions," he said. "For instance, they would have gone from a four-day week to a five-day week, which is not a big deal if you still have Saturday and Sunday as your days off. But for some of those guys, their days off are Tuesday and Wednesday. That was a huge sticking point, I believe. And there was some confusion on what the city's last offer was to them. They were not sure they were voting on that offer."
Evans said the proposed change from a four-day week to a five-day week would have created child-care issues for some officers, and it would have kept other officers from supplementing their income by working another job.
Firefighters also were able to negotiate a provision that eliminated concerns about how the reductions would affect the pensions of senior firefighters. May said the deal his union made with the city allowed firefighters to leave their salary structure largely intact, protecting those pensions. Instead, firefighters will begin contributing a monthly amount toward their insurance that the city used to pay on their behalf. That agreement still resulted in the necessary cash reduction for the city.
"In order to make the sacrifices we needed to make, we moved that money around so it didn't affect more senior officers' pensions," he said. "For those in the 15- to 20-year range or higher, their retirement is based on their highest salary."
Evans said that provision was a major difference in the two proposals.
"The firefighters' deal was crafted so they would not affect retirees and their benefits--that's a huge thing," he said, adding that firefighters also received assurances that if additional forms of revenue are raised by the city, some of the concessions that were granted to the city could be reversed.
"They wouldn't give that to us, and we asked for it," Evans said.
May noted that another element that made the deal more palatable to his members was the provision that the cuts are not permanent--they will extend through the end of this fiscal year and the next for a total of 17 months.
But when the firefighters union opens negotiations with the city on the contract following that in February 2011, it will begin with the old salary and benefits structure in place.
"We don't have to renegotiate back up the ladder," May said. "The basic contract will be the same one we had two years ago. That's one of the protections they offered us."
The two MOUs that police agreed to will last only through the end of this fiscal year, June 30. So city officials and FOP leaders will be back at the bargaining table soon to sort things out again. Evans isn't sure how fruitful those sessions will be.
"I'm very hopeful we'll be able to work together, but when (the mayor) tells us he's only going to cut our salaries 7.5 percent and it's actually 15 percent, coupled with the other things he offered the firefighters, well ... we feel like he's essentially trying to get rid of us and break us down."
Evans pointed out that the FOP has agreed to a series of cuts in recent months that have added up for its members.
"That brings our total cuts for the year to 25 percent for majority officers," he said. "That's a lot of money ... It essentially put a lot of our guys where take can't meet their bills."
May echoed that complaint. He said some of his members have bristled at media characterizations that firefighters have taken only a 5.2 percent cut. Combined with the eight furlough days union members already voted to accept, as well as other concessions, the total compensation reduction amounts to at least 10 percent per firefighter since July 1, he said.
Despite his union's willingness to accept the city's offer, May indicated there could be some lingering hard feelings over the way the situation played out.
"The general thought from our members is that had it been normal times, we probably would have fought this in the courts, not in the press," he said. "But the city did a masterful job of waiting until the deadline to start negotiations and didn't leave time to craft a solution."
Even so, his members have made their decision and are ready to move on, he said.
"Pretty positive, actually," May said of the mood among his members. "Nobody is happy with the package, but they acted as a brotherhood, and the support of citizens has been overwhelming, so (morale has) improved."
Evans said there is a great deal of sadness among his officers at seeing so many of their counterparts lose their jobs. But he said a speech last week by new Chief Chuck Jordan before city officials has improved spirits.
"He really took up for us," Evans said. "He spoke very well, and the guys are all tickled about that because they're not used to having people take up for us."
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