Cape firefighters protest cuts

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Cape Girardeau firefighters want it known they're not happy with the benefits they're receiving from the city.

About 50 firefighters past and present, along with their wives and children, attended Monday's city council meeting in a show of solidarity. They stood at the back of the chambers wearing navy blue T-shirts, patiently waiting 90 minutes to speak.

When it was their turn, it was the wives who came to the podium and addressed the council.

"The wishes of the people are being disregarded. The fire department is being unfairly singled out for cuts. Vacation time and sick leave accrual rates are being reduced in direct opposition to the support the people have shown," said Erin Venable, whose husband, Chris, has been a firefighter with the city since August 2006.

The complaints of Venable and others stem from a decision made at the end of 2006 to reduce the vacation and sick-leave allotted to new firefighters.

Firefighters accumulate 32 hours of sick leave and vacation time per month, cut from 48 last year.

"We are not asking for raises, we are not asking for anything additional, we simply ask that you reinstate the benefits for newly hired firefighters," Venable said.

But the city argues that the cuts merely brought firefighters more into line with benefits common to other employees.

Firefighters work 10, 24-hour shifts each month. That is about 40 percent more than other city workers. But their vacation and sick leave was 300 percent more than other workers before the cuts.

The result, said city manager Doug Leslie, was a fire payroll that came in $85,000 over budget in 2005-2006. The cuts are only applicable to employees hired after the decision, a total of five firefighters.

But firefighters say they're being singled out. They point to overwhelming support for the department shown by the 2004 passage of a 1/4-cent sales tax to pay for fire department-related issues in Cape Girardeau.

"They did that so we could recruit and retain good firefighters. They knew benefit packages needed to go up. But within a year's time they cut our benefits, does that make sense?" asked Capt. Dean Lynn, president of the firefighters of Cape Girardeau Local 1084.

Roger Wood, a former Cape Girardeau firefighter who left the department in 2005 after six years, said the trend of under-supporting firefighters is a long-term one.

Wood now commutes to the metro-St. Louis area to work for a different department.

"Here you are, you're trying to support a family and these guys are going backward every year. They're losing benefits and their raises don't even keep up with the cost of health insurance," he said.

But Leslie and others point out that Cape Girardeau is actually competitive with other departments when it comes to accrual rates of vacation and sick days.

Comparable cities including Columbia, Jefferson City and Springfield give firefighters an average of 27.6 hours of total time off monthly. New firefighters in Cape Gir-ardeau after the cuts receive 32 hours monthly.

Fire chief Rick Ennis said he has the utmost respect for his men, but he's not with them on this issue.

"I worked that shift and that schedule for many years, but I believe the decision that the city has made is fair," he said.

But Lynn said Monday's public protest is just the beginning.

"We're public servants, so we can't legally strike, but we won't stop. We're going to revisit this and we have a lot of support from other fire departments," he said.

335-6611, extension 245

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