A sharply divided Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday approved a new three-year contract for firefighters that some members praised as saving the city money by shifting more pension costs onto workers but others criticized as including raises the city couldn't afford.
The 5-2 vote followed a lengthy debate about whether the complex agreement was as good a deal for taxpayers as city staff claimed.
Human Resources Director Fran Elm said the total savings to the city over three years of the contract as $1.84 million.
The savings come primarily from the requirement to have most firefighters begin paying 9 percent of their salaries toward pension, a figure that increases to 12 percent for all firefighters by the end of the contract. In exchange, the city is granting firefighters total raises of 4.5 percent over the period.
Other changes in the contract include limiting the paramedic work — and extra pay that goes with it — to rank-and-file firefighters, thus excluding their superiors from the duties and extra pay. The changes also change the way overtime is calculated and provide additional vacation days for workers once they hit 15 and 20 years of service.
Several council members praised the deal, which has been under negotiation since February, and the willingness of firefighters to help the city meet its pension reform goals.
"It's saving us money long term," Mayor Scott Bartley said. "I think we should be proud of where we are. I think this is a positive step in a really good direction."
But two council members, Gary Wysocky and Julie Combs, voted against the contract, questioning the wisdom of signing a long-term contract and noting the firefighters have received significant raises during a period when most people's wages have seen stagnant.
"My Daddy used to say when you're in a hole, stop digging," Combs said. "Unfortunately we continue to dig a hole."
The city has roads full of potholes, parks in need of repair and a $7 million per year sales tax measure that expires in a few years, Combs said. She noted that the council recently couldn't even see fit to hire a few more temporary groundskeeperss to help keep the parks clean.
Wysocky, who asked the bulk of the questions on the issue, took a similar view, suggesting the proposed raises were unjustified. His questions of staff revealed that that firefighters had received gross pay increases of nearly 28 percent since 2006 and 80 percent of firefighters make over $100,000 per year.
"We're continuing to add to our structural deficit when we given raises and we don't know how we're going to pay for them," Wysocky said.
Tim Aboudara, president of the Santa Rosa Firefighters, Local 1401, said he was most pleased by the changes in the contract that eliminate the "employer-paid member contributions" for firefighters hired before 2012.
The practice, which called for the city to pay firefighters' pension contributions on their behalf, was confusing from a public policy and public relations perspective, he said.
"I'm happy to say . . . firefighters are paying their fair share," Aboudara said.,
He took issue with the figures Wysocky cited, stressing that when firefighters' concessions over that same time period are considered, they've received a net increase of 12.9 percent.