Bloomington firefighter staffing, pay get another look from city council this week

Back on Bloomington’s city council agenda for this Wednesday (June 21) will be two different ordinances, both affecting firefighters.

One ordinance is a change that adds three EMT positions to the fire department, in addition to making some changes to other city departments. Among the other changes is a new project manager position in the engineering department.

The second ordinance makes a payment to firefighters that does not raise their annual salary, but gives them the cash equivalent of an extra 3-percent increase this year above the amount specified in their 2022 collective bargaining agreement. Combined with their contractual 2-percent increase, that approximates for firefighters the 5-percent increase that non-union employees received from 2022 to 2023.

The other big change in the second ordinance is the creation of a new position—the assistant chief of operations, who will, among other things, assess safety risks to firefighters during structural fires.

Both ordinances appeared on last week’s agenda for final adoption, having received their perfunctory first reading at the council’s June 7 meeting.

But representatives for the city’s firefighter union [Bloomington Metropolitan International Association of Firefighters Local 586] persuaded the council to put off a vote for a week. The union sees potential in the changes for an erosion of the number of sworn firefighters.

It was not as long a delay as fire union president Jordan Canada wanted. Canada asked councilmembers to postpone the votes until after their summer recess, which ends with the council’s regular meeting on July 26.

During their turns at the mic in city council chambers, Bloomington fire chief Jason Moore and union representatives aired out some different perspectives on the issues raised in the ordinance changes.

The incoming recruitment class for firefighters this summer is 21 strong. That reflects the fact that the department is short by around 20 percent of its budgeted number. It also means the resulting department will be less experienced than before.

From the public mic, firefighter Shaun Huttenlocker said about the proposed assistant chief position: “I think it would be fair to say that retention is our biggest issue. I don’t think anybody has said a shortage of chiefs is our biggest issue.”

Towards the end of the night, before the council finally voted unanimously to postpone the two ordinances another week, Moore sized up the conversion like this, “If the union wants input, they have input in every aspect of our department. If the union wants to run the department, then they need to apply to be the fire chief.”

One point of agreement between Moore and union reps was the fact that notice to the union about the changes had been relatively short. The council’s meeting information packet, with text of the two ordinances, to be presented at the June 7 meeting was distributed to the public on Friday, June 2.

Canada said he wasn’t aware of the proposed changes until around June 5, which was a couple of days before the council heard the ordinances at first reading. Moore confirmed that the date coincided roughly with his return to work having been away, dealing with a personal medical issue.

The council’s calendar for this year doesn’t automatically set aside time for the council to have a discussion in front of the public at least twice before taking a vote. That’s an artifact of the rift that evolved during the first three years of the current council’s service, over the use of standing committees or a committee of the whole, to provide an additional chance for public discussion.

That meant the two ordinances were up for a final vote last week, without the benefit of any previous deliberations.

Moore addressed the union’s legal concern, that by hiring EMTs, civilians could be taking over sworn firefighter positions that had been laid off.

Moore said, “The administration is not laying off any firefighters.” He continued, “We’re proposing additional staff to help with a 100-percent increase in call volume during my time as fire chief. Moore added, “We’re proposing an increase in staff to deal with the impact of a lack of healthcare in our community.”

The way the administration had described the personnel changes sounded to Canada like “rearranging” sworn and non-sworn personnel. That’s why he wanted more time to get clarity on the details. If possible, he wanted something in writing.

Councilmember Matt Flaherty responded to Canada’s request that something be put in writing by saying “These are public meetings with minutes, and a record, and that will be in writing.” And I think Chief Moore is a trusted department head, and I believe that we can take him at his word.”

Part of Moore’s word included the statement: “I will not take sworn members off of an apparatus, change the name of it, and start sending civilians out to do the same jobs.” He added, “That is not what has been proposed. That cannot happen.”

The specific apparatus that is at the center of the dispute is “the squad” which is currently an F-150 pickup truck specially outfitted for its use in the department. Moore described the squad like this: “It fills in for emergency medical calls. And it also fills in for the safety and accountability officer.”

Moore continued, “It is staffed by two sworn firefighters—one is a sergeant, which…we refer to as the squad officer.” About the second member of the squad, Moore said, “One is a squad driver, which is an engineer or one of our acting drivers.”

Moore summed up the squad like this: “The two together make up a very key component of not only the emergency medical response side, but they also are that safety and accountability on our fire scenes.”

Councilmembers last week were clear about the idea that they would be voting in favor of the two ordinances. Their only motivation to postone was to give some extra time for the union, and for themselves, to get a better understanding of what is planned.

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