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Fire Department, city reopen contract talks

Last Modified: Friday, January 31, 2014 12:04 PM

By Justin B. Phillips / American Press

The relationship between the Lake Charles Fire Department and the city over the last few years has been rocky, to say the least.

The department has been operating without a contract for more than two years, and the last time the two parties discussed benefits, the talks ended abruptly over the details of a pay raise.

The city said it couldn’t afford one, and the City Council didn’t support the firefighters’ request to let voters decide on the pay increase.

With the start of the new year, the two parties are back at the table with hopes of finding some middle ground.

Lake Charles District Fire Chief Chris Carroll, liaison for International Association of Fire Fighters Local 561, said the process is steadily progressing as firefighters continue to work out the contract’s details.

“A few weeks ago, we requested that the city reopen contract negotiations,” Carroll said. “We’ve put together a preliminary contract. We’ve worked on it to make sure we get the wordage right so it’s comfortable with the union members and with the city itself.”

Carroll submitted the contract to the city during Thursday’s City Council meeting. He said the new version addresses firefighters’ basic concerns, including items on vacation days and shift hours.

“Right now, we’re just trying to negotiate a contract that works for both sides,” Carroll said. “It’s something that can give our guys peace of mind and will keep from putting the city in an uncomfortable situation.”

Carroll drew a parallel to 2011 when the previous talks ended. Knowing the financial constraints the city faces and understanding how that could affect negotiations is important, Carroll said.

“We want to see how the economy goes in the near future because we understand how complicated that can be,” he said. “We’re just asking for the basics for our guys.”

Recently, city officials approached the firefighters with a “memorandum of understanding.” The concept is a gentleman’s agreement between the city and the firefighters. The Shreveport Fire Department operates under a similar agreement.

A memorandum of understanding relies heavily on the relationship between the city and the organization participating in the agreement. Within this concept, headway can still be made on negotiating benefits for the department.

Lake Charles Fire Chief Keith Murray said there are other ways for the firefighters to get the benefits they desire. The problem, he said, is in the phrasing.

“When people hear the term ‘contract,’ they focus too much on the phrasing. We can still go about getting the benefits our employees want without it being a contract,” Murray said. “Contracts are cumbersome. They expire. Things have to continuously be looked at. There are other ways to get the things you need.”

Murray said only a handful of the more than 600 fire departments in the state have contracts with the cities they work in. He said that under a memorandum of understanding, the department could negotiate benefits and have them passed via ordinances.

“If the requests are approved and put into ordinances or policies, they don’t have to be addressed again,” Murray said. “With contracts, you have to keep coming back to the table to work on them.”

Considering how the Fire Department and the city are slowly beginning to mend a broken relationship, Carroll said the best move is still to pursue a new contract.

He said ordinances can easily and quickly be changed. All that has to be done is that the issue be placed before the City Council and then voted on.

“A contract is a totally binding item for the length of however long it’s made out to be,” Carroll said. “Ordinances and policies can be changed fairly quickly. It’s because of that possibility of change that makes us want to have a contract.”

He said that at the end of the day, the firefighters are more comfortable with a solid agreement with the city.

“We feel a contract would be the best situation for us,” Carroll said. “We feel like we’ve taken the proper steps and we’re working toward something both parties can be comfortable with.”

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