City council OKs contract with Bloomington firefighters, different longevity pay a highlight

At its meeting on Wednesday, the Bloomington city council approved a four-year collective bargaining agreement with International Association of Fire Fighters Local 586 that runs through 2024.

For a firefighter first class, the agreement calls for a 1-percent raise in 2021 to $54,625 in base pay. A 2-percent raise each year after that, through 2024, brings a firefighter’s base pay to $57,969.

According to a memo from the city’s corporation counsel, Philippa Guthrie, the city will be compensating firefighters by a total of about $2 million more, over the four-year term of the contract.

At the city council’s public safety committee review of the contract on Dec. 9, one concern raised by councilmember Jim Sims was about the diversity of the fire department. Fire chief Jason Moore reported a current department profile of about 5 percent women, and between 3 to 4 percent Black and or people of color.

Moore said that the department is working to recruit a more diverse pool of applicants, in part by supporting the Hoosier Hills Career Center in the Monroe County Community School Corporation and the Ivy Tech fire science program.

The numbers reported by Moore square up with the 2018 numbers in the department’s diversity profile that is available through the city’s B Clear data portal.

Translating the 2018 percentages into numbers, five out of 109 BFD employees in 2018 were women, two were Black, five were veterans and 25 had bachelor’s degrees. The average age was about 44 and they had an average of about 15 years of service.

The average years of service is consistent with a low turnover rate. In the chart included in this article of Bloomington’s fire department employment, based on Indiana’s DLGF salary database, the department’s low turnover rate is evident. (Rows are individual fire fighters. Columns are years 2012 to 2019. Cells are shaded if the officer was employed for any part of the year.)

The change to longevity pay could have an impact on the turnover rate, according to Moore. At the Dec. 9 committee meeting, Moore said, “We do anticipate this contract, with the change to retirement, may increase the turnover rate.”

In the previous contract, longevity pay in Year 2 through Year 19 did not increase every year, but rather at certain intervals. In the new contract, the longevity pay starts at $400/year in Year 2, and increases by $100 each year after that through Year 19, when it hits $2,100.

A bigger difference is the way the new contract handles Year 20 and after.

In the previous contract, after Year 20, the longevity amount was $3,750. In the new contract, after Year 20, the longevity pay is pegged at $12,500.

But a firefighter won’t actually receive that higher figure in their current pay. The contract caps the amount that can be paid at the same level as in the previous contract: $3,750. The pension contribution is made at the higher rate.

According to Guthrie’s memo, “The purpose of this bifurcated structure is to provide a significantly higher pension benefit.”

The memo continues: “The state pension fund calculates firefighter pension rates by adding the amount of the base salary of a firefighter first class to the amount of the 20-year longevity rate. Under this new structure, the pension base for 2021 would be $67,120 ($54,625 base pay + $12,500 longevity pay) instead of $58,375 ($54,625 + $3,750).”

The memo adds, “This difference will enable our employees to receive significantly higher pension payments during the years of their retirement, while limiting their salary amount during their period of employment to levels consistent with past practice.”

Moore told the council’s public safety committee that in the most recent hiring process, there had over 200 applicants, and in the hiring process before that, over 300 applicants, which means that jobs at the Bloomington fire department are still desirable.

Moore also mentioned that the city’s fire department now has a direct competitor in the county for prospective employees.

The competitor is Monroe Fire Protection District, which has recently expanded, so that by 2022 all the townships outside the city except for Richland and Bean Blossom will be served by MFPD.

The job posting related to the most recent expansion of the MFPD ended Nov. 30. According to MFPD chief Dustin Dillard, more than 70 people applied. On Thursday this week, 53 written exams were administered. Those who pass the written test will advance to an application review, which will be followed by interviews, Dillard said.

The top 14 candidates in the overall process will be offered positions starting March 10, 2021, Dillard said.

According to Dillard, probationary pay for MFPD firefighters is $54,000. After the probationary period, pay is bumped to first class firefighter pay, which is $60,000, Dillard said.

MFPD firefighters belong to the same union as Bloomington firefighters, Dillard said, but to different districts within the union.