Judge rejects city offer in pension lawsuit _lowres

Firefighters battle a three-alarm fire in this April 2013 file photo. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Frustrated Baton Rouge firefighters irritated by a proposed city pay plan they saw for the first time this week say they’ll submit a counteroffer seeking higher wages without cuts in benefits.

William Daniel, the mayor-president’s chief administrative officer, has proposed a 2 percent pay raise with cuts to benefits for city employees that would go into effect next year. The firefighters union says its members deserve raises three times as much as the city has proposed, at least 6 percent.

A Baton Rouge firefighter pay study from 2012 generally shows Baton Rouge firefighters are paid less than their peers in other cities but have better benefits with more leave and holiday hours.

Daniel’s proposal would shave and reshuffle those benefits.

Firefighters would no longer be allowed to roll over and build up unused sick leave for early retirement; nor would the proposed plan tack onto their salaries additional longevity money, which rewards employees for 10 years of service with the city. Instead, sick leave would be “use it or lose it,” and longevity money would be funneled into an expanded pay plan in which the money would be doled out in small yearly raises instead of through longevity pay.

Shane Spillman, president of the Baton Rouge firefighters union, said the city’s proposal is unfair. He said firefighters aren’t prepared to accept such small pay raises while also suffering cuts to benefits.

The counteroffer won’t be available until next week, but Spillman hinted it likely will include a request for pay raises of at least 6 percent and that firefighters be allowed to keep putting unused sick leave toward retirement.

Firefighters already receive 2 percent cost-of-living pay raises most years, thanks to a dedicated property tax millage. Spillman said the taxes also help pay for their retirement. Aside from those, firefighters have not had raises in more than five years.

“We’ve got a serious problem with the city taking benefits that we fund ourselves through our own millage,” Spillman said.

The pay raise study that the firefighters commissioned breaks down average base salaries and total compensation by year for firefighters in Baton Rouge compared to those in Houston; Fort Worth, Texas; West Palm Beach, Florida; Shreveport; Lake Charles; Phoenix; and Clarksville, Tennessee.

The study shows a firefighter in his 20th year of service in Baton Rouge could earn about $53,000 in total compensation, which combines base pay, longevity pay and other allowances. On the other hand, the average total compensation for 20-year firefighters in the peer cities included in the study is $57,577.

However, 20-year Baton Rouge firefighters have 360 hours of leave, whereas similar firefighters in the peer cities have 254 leave hours on average. A 20-year Baton Rouge firefighter also would have around 288 holiday hours, as opposed to an average of 105 holiday hours for firefighters in the peer cities.

While Daniel has used those instances as evidence that benefits for Baton Rouge city workers are “way, way out of line,” Spillman contends the benefits are a way to recruit new hires and says meager pay increases will not attract more workers.

In addition, Spillman said, firefighters have much more stringent requirements than other city workers for using a sick day, in which firefighters must have a doctor’s note.

The firefighters are not alone in directing heat toward Daniel. Department of Public Works employees also argue that 2 percent raises are not enough.

But Daniel has held firm in his stance.

“I’m not trying to set off any alarms,” Daniel said when he unveiled the plan. “But I will tell you this: If we keep going down this path, you’re going to find more and more city services privatized. Because we cannot keep up.”

DPW union representatives and police officers are still deep in negotiations, as well. Daniel said they are not rushing to fit the negotiations into the proposed 2015 budget, which will be revealed next week. Instead, he said, city-parish officials hope to add the raises as a budget supplement between January and March .