HILO — With more than 30 black-shirted firefighters crowding into council chambers and watching them closely, three County Council members switched their votes Tuesday to give unanimous support to their raises.
The compensation package, featuring a 2% salary increase for each of two years, bonuses of $1,500-$2,000 annually and a 2% 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.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Maile David, Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter and Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder said explanations provided by the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association answered their questions that led them to voting no in committee.
“There’s no question how valuable our firefighters and our police are (but) we as the legislative body have to make informed decisions and this is probably one of the hardest things that have come before my eyes,” David said.
Still, David said, it’s difficult when an arbitration panel pointed to the county’s good bond rating as evidence the county can afford the compensation package.
“We’re trying to be fiscally prudent,” David said. “I’m concerned for the future of the county’s financial position. … When raises are based on our good rating, it really puts somewhat of a burden on us to maintain that rating no matter what else comes up.”
Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz recused herself because she’s married to a firefighter. Fighting tears, she praised the department.
“I have so much gratitude for all you do,” Kierkiewicz said. “I didn’t think I would get so emotional, but I just want you to know I appreciate you.”
HFFA President Bobby Lee, along with Charles Spain, HFFA Hawaii division chairman, disputed the county’s contention that the council has the right to not fund the compensation package, sending everything back to square one. Because the union doesn’t have the right to strike, an arbitrated decision is final, they said.
“It’s very clear it’s a legal and binding decision because we have no other option. It is legal and binding and it should be funded,” Lee said. “If you enter into arbitration, everyone lives with the decision. … You’ve basically eliminated collective bargaining at that point and we have nowhere to turn.”
County Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela cited a 1998 state attorney general report he said asserts the contrary. The county has the right to reject the deal, he said.
“The attorney general opinion has a different interpretation than what’s been presented by Mr. Lee. … I’ve talked to the attorney general,” Kamelamela told the council. “Yes, its up to you to make a decision here as to the appropriateness of the cost items.”
Council Chairman Aaron Chung, a Hilo attorney, disagreed with the attorney general’s opinion, saying oftentimes the opinions are politically driven.
“Our greatest resource of the county, because we’re a service-providing organization, is our employees,” Chung said. “To me, it’s binding arbitration. There’s an overriding position of fairness — we’ve got to treat employees fairly.”