Firefighter raises, bonuses questioned

  • Firefighters set up a pool for the helicopter to fill its bucket for water drops on a 2016 brush fire. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today, file photo)

HILO — A pay plan for firefighters that includes raises as well as bonuses and other perks could be on shaky ground, with Mayor Harry Kim opposed and the County Council offering only tepid support.

The agreement with the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association must be approved by all four counties in order to be valid. Counties have the option of accepting or rejecting it outright, without changes.

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If even one county votes no, the collective bargaining process, which this year ended in the hands of an independent arbitrator, goes back to square one. Hawaii County could become that county, rejecting a statewide collective bargaining agreement for the first time in memory.

The council, sitting as the Finance Committee, voted 5-3 last week to forward Resolution 169 to its only council vote Tuesday. With Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz recusing herself because she’s married to a firefighter, just one more no vote will kill the measure on a 4-4 tie.

No matter which side they were on, all council members praised the hard work of the firefighters during some tough times.

“I don’t know that there really is a number that could actually value the service, the discipline and all the different really, really, really powerful and appreciated services that they provide our community,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas, a yes vote.

Basically, it boils down to whether the county can afford it, they said.

“The concern that our constituents and the people of this island are concerned with is the extremely high cost of wages for, not only the Fire Department, but this entire county,” said Finance Committee Chairwoman Maile David, representing South Kona/Ka‘u, a no vote. “They are talking about cutting and then when you have something here, looking at the numbers, is astronomical as far as a layman’s vision.”

Also voting no were Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter and Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder.

The compensation package, featuring a 2% salary increase for each of two years, $1.2 million in bonuses and an increase in regular pay based on years of service — known as step increases — would cost the county an extra $7 million over two years on a payroll budget of roughly $30 million annually, about 10% more.

There are 425 employees in the Fire Department, not all of whom are in the bargaining unit.

One of the yes votes, Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, was wobbly in her support. Other counties are having similar heartburn, according to Finance Director Deanna Sako.

“I’d like to see what the other counties do, but I’m willing to move it forward to get to the next step,” Lee Loy said.

Kim, who has no veto power over council resolutions, just wants the legislative body to say no.

“Our employees work hard and are very dedicated to their jobs,” Kim said in an April 18 letter to the council. “However, after careful consideration, I feel that I cannot support the arbitration decision, at this time. As our costs to operate the county continue to rise, we have to control all of our costs, including collective bargaining unit agreements.”

The firefighters union wants the county to take the arbitrated decision seriously.

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“Our members have responded to many major incidents that have impacted our community on a large scale,” Charles Spain, HFFA Hawaii division chairman, told the council committee. “Any disruptions in these services would be detrimental to the public safety and well being.”

Besides, Spain argued, “We have all agreed to arbitration that would be final and binding. The employer group, the HFFA and the (arbitration) panel have fulfilled their statutory obligations and this award is fair and modest.”

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