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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Memo Sheds Light on Touchy Budget Talks Between Fire Union, Mayor's Office

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, May 22, 2013 at 11:29 AM

Peace has largely reigned over Portland's budget process this year. Despite filling a $21.5 million budget gap, Mayor Charlie Hales has tried to deliver what good news he could to safety net advocates and parks boosters and others, even as he's proposed big cuts to the police and fire bureaus.

And there has been curiously little public pushback against those public safety cuts. Neither residents nor groups like the Portland Business Alliance have lined up to decry the pending loss of 50-plus sworn police positions and 26 firefighters. 38 fire bureau workers, including 26 from the bureau's battalions.

Behind the scenes, that's not quite the case—especially when it comes to the fire bureau. A memo (pdf) obtained by the Mercury—essentially a script for Hales to follow during a meeting Tuesday morning with the Portland Fire Fighters Association—reveals intense deliberations in private over the best way to meet Hales' goal of saving money without maybe having to lay off so many firefighters.

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The memo also expands on simmering discontent with managing another of Hales' main goals: swapping in two-person rapid response vehicles, designed to handle medical calls, in place of four-person fire engines and ladder trucks. PFFA President Alan Ferschweiler wrote a stinging op-ed in the Oregonian on Monday criticizing the mayor's initial attempt at the change. Later that day, Fire Chief Erin Janssens leaked to the O a plan that would ameliorate some of the fire union's concerns, something that came up in the meeting.

I've left a message for Ferschweiler, and I'll update with his comments when they come.

Labor negotiations also appear to be on the table. Though the firefighters agreed on a new contract last year, Hales' office has suggested the union could avoid some layoffs by reopening the deal and agreeing to forgo some cost-of-living increases. The memo claims Ferschweiler personally supports the idea but doesn't think his members will go along.

"We should respond that the COLA is a one-time thing to get us to a new normal, and it is up to them," Hales' talking points say. "You are dead serious about the RRVs and overall savings. They can either choose jobs or trucks."

Members, according to the memo, want the city to apply for grant money that would help mitigate layoffs in the short term while waiting for better economic times. But Hales' office tells me there's still "a gap," because that grant money would only be a "band-aid"—although, "who doesn't like free money?"—and wouldn't help the city get even over the course of it's five-year budget.

"We've been flexible," says Noah Siegel, a policy adviser for Hales. "The goal is hitting the savings number and introducing innovations."

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