BY MATT MACKINDER
Clarkston News Staff Writer
The Independence Township Fire Department and Independence Firefighters Local Union 2629 are still at odds over department finances.
According to a statement released by the union in response to last week’s story “Fire budget woes pinned on pensions” and column “Keep the promises you make, don’t make promises you can’t afford” by township Supervisor Pat Kittle, the recent Arbitration 312 ruling concluded the township can pay the retirement increases without raising taxes or creating any encumbering debt for the township.
“This same retirement program is used in many surrounding communities, such as Brandon, Oxford, Village of Holly and Northville,” read the statement. “The firefighter/paramedics of Local 2629 went through this arbitration to lower contribution from 12.06 percent, to 10 percent. With projections from MERS (Municipal Employees Retirement System), the deferred benefit system that is used, employee contributions were projected to climb to approximately 18 percent within a few years, while the township was capped at 12 percent contribution.”
Fire Chief Mitch Petterson said both sides agreed on the percentage during contract negotiations.
“What was consistent and agreed upon throughout all of this was that any required contribution amounts above 10 percent would be paid by the employees, not the township,” Petterson said.
Until the recent arbitration decision, this contractually agreed upon cost share remained unchanged, aside from the township agreeing to raise their contribution to 12 percent a couple of years ago, he said.
Kittle acknowledged one error in his column – he incorrectly said once firefighters attain 25 years of service and 55 years of age, they get 80 percent of their pension. This number is actually 62.5 percent.
“A firefighter gets 80 percent once they have 32 years of service and 55 years of age,” Kittle said. “While the years of service number changed from 25 to 32, the costs and incremental financial implications remain the same.”
Petterson said he helped negotiate many of the benefits in place for today’s fire department as union president.
“The MERS pension system was in place before I was hired, and long before I was elected as union president,” he said.
The bargaining team negotiated three plan changes – allowing retirees’ spouses to collect 50 percent of the pension benefit after the retiree dies, adding 10 years to an employee’s seniority if they suffer an injury during their career and have to accept a duty-related disability retirement, and changing the base wage calculation of benefit to an adjusted gross wage benefit.
“We purchased and received actuarial studies from MERS at the time, and both parties (union and township) agreed upon the changes,” said Petterson, who has been in MERS throughout his full career.
“As far as how I’m treated with respect to both my MERS retirement and my health care, I am just like every other uniformed full-time member of the department. I get no more, I get no less. The percentage of my paycheck that goes to MERS is exactly the same as every member of the union,” he said. “To me, it’s about long-term sustainability. This should really be a clue for everyone to take a hard look at what this means long term. The fire chief will get the same exact benefit the union folks will, yet he’s so opposed to it he’s willing to go on record against it.”
The fire chief is not in the union because that person has to consider what employees want and also what keeps this organization solvent and positioned to keep providing a high level of service, he said.
Last week, readers on social media asked why some firefighters are working 72-hour shifts. Petterson addressed that as well.
“Yes, our personnel are sometimes working 72-hour shifts, but this is nothing new,” he said. “It’s probably important to point out that not every shift is a 72-hour shift. Throughout my entire career, we have been able to work 72-hour shifts, whether it is due to volunteering for overtime, being compelled to work overtime if no one volunteers, or by trading days (employees are permitted to trade work days with other employees). We call it ‘working a triple’ in the fire department, and I worked many, many triples when I was in the operations division. It’s a give and take. If the employees want the flexibility to pick up overtime or trade into a triple, then they have to be willing to work a triple when we need them to.”
Most departments are like that, he said.
“I’d imagine a 72-hour shift seems to the general public to be really long and exhausting, but in a department that runs an average of around 10 calls a day between three stations, the bulk that time is down time or time spent in the stations and not on incidents,” he said.
Comments from Independence Fire Local 2629 also included:
• In 2012, administration stated when staffing falls below nine firefighter/paramedics per day, it is critically dangerous. Recently, the fire department has been running at eight firefighter/paramedics per day, with occurrences of even going as low as seven. This takes Car 3, the command vehicle in which the Shift Captain drives, out of service;
• Other departments were contacted last week five times for mutual-aid on medicals that could have been handled by the promised third medic unit in the 2012 millage. Contacting outside departments for mutual-aid greatly increases the response time to your call;
• Staffing two firefighter/paramedics per ambulance is crucial to patient care, as these two employees are then able to come up with the best plans regarding your patient care. The paramedic driving the ambulance is more than just a driver, as the two paramedics are able to communicate with each other. The two paramedics switch roles each call, and each paramedic is in the back of the ambulance on a daily basis;
• Per the current Contract between Independence Township and Local 2629 currently allows the hiring of EMT-Basics but only on a part time basis. The current firefighters/paramedics feel strongly residents of Independence Township deserve to have 10 firefighter/paramedics on shift per day, as the community overwhelmingly passed a mileage to do just that in 2012;
• The Firefighter/Paramedics of Local 2629 fought for this change as the employees were being financially suffocated, and simply asked for relief; and
• Comparable departments used in Arbitration 312 that were agreed on by both the Township and Independence Fire Local 2629, the Firefighter/Paramedics all have lower contribution percentages into their deferred benefit system.