Nineteen Omaha firefighters will keep their jobs under a tentative deal reached between the Mayor's Office and the city's fire union.
The city and the union came to the agreement after months of sparring over the Fire Department's budget — and 10 days after the city began issuing layoff notices to 19 firefighters hired earlier this year. The layoffs were to be effective Jan. 4.
Under the terms announced Wednesday, the union will agree to drop the size of next year's paramedic training program from 48 to 9 people. In exchange, Mayor Jean Stothert has agreed not to lay off any firefighters while the current labor contract between the city and the union is still in place.
That contract is set to expire in December 2014. The layoff protections will remain in place until a new contract is approved or the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations makes an order in the absence of a new contract.
In addition, Stothert said she will not take any rigs out of service while the contract remains in place, with the exception of one South Omaha-based medic unit.
The deal will not be final until it is reviewed by the city's Personnel Board and approved by the fire union and the City Council.
Both sides said they were satisfied with the end result of the negotiations and are looking to move forward.
“We negotiated in good faith and made concessions to assist the city in balancing their budget for 2014,” fire union President Steve LeClair said. He added that the union “stood firm” on its priorities of keeping up staffing levels and preventing rigs from being idled.
Interim Fire Chief Bernard Kanger called the deal “an act of compromise, an act of goodwill and generosity to the City of Omaha,” on the part of both city and union negotiators.
The paramedic program at the heart of the budget debate has long been controversial.
Officials in former Mayor Jim Suttle's administration said the overtime required for firefighters filling in for coworkers in training classes would drive the department over budget this year. Stothert, then a member of the City Council, argued that the Fire Department should be able to pay for the training without increasing spending.
In her first months in office, Stothert made those budget issues a central focus, pushing former Chief Mike McDonnell on spending and management decisions. The two eventually agreed to a deal that led to McDonnell's retirement earlier this month.
The cuts to the paramedic training program in the tentative deal are expected to save about $4 million, which would put the department on track to meet next year's $90.6 million budget.
“By reducing the class, more individuals will remain on shift to perform their firefighter duties, thereby greatly reducing overtime each day,” Stothert said.
The mayor initially said she would rescind the layoffs if the union agreed to trim the size of its paramedic training program from 48 to 12 people next year.
The union agreed to those cuts, so long as the city would extend layoff protections to 47 firefighters hired this year. The more than 600 other city firefighters are already protected from layoffs under the current labor contract.
The mayor rejected the offer, noting that the city has more firefighters than it did when the contract was approved.
The two parties went back and forth over proposals that dropped the paramedic program to smaller numbers. The most recent version before the tentative deal was reached had the mayor offering layoff protection for all firefighters through 2015 — but with the city assuming control of all staffing decisions beginning in 2016.
That condition is not part of the tentative agreement.
LeClair said the union will go through a comment and meeting process before all members vote on the deal. That will likely take about three weeks.
Council President Pete Festersen said that council members hadn't received a full explanation on the deal but that he expected the council would review it next week.
“We're pleased the tentative agreement has been reached,” he said.