Ballot approved for voters to decide on El Paso firefighter contract

EL PASO, Texas– As a fallen public servant is remembered- the city of El Paso discusses now much to pay another set of public servants: firefighters.

As KFOX14 has reported, the city has been unable to come to an agreement with El Paso Fire Union, Local 51 over their contract.

The issue is going to a vote for the first time in the city’s history.

When it comes to the May ballots those who want to vote in favor of El Paso’s firefighters will circle “yes.”

If you want to side with the city– you’ll circle “no.”

There are three issues that voters will get to weigh in on– the increase in health insurance premiums and how much firefighters should contribute, wages and drug testing.

“The city is asking the firefighters to take a pay cut,” said Paul Thompson the second vice president of El Paso’s Fire Union, Local 51.

The biggest issue on the ballot is how much firefighters will have to pay in health insurance.

Rep. Emma Acosta asked how much it will cost homeowners if voters, vote in favor of the firefighters.

The answer: For a $120,000 home, they’ll pay about $12.50 per year for the next four years.

City staff and City Manager Tommy Gonzalez gave council what they call the real numbers
And, they discussed the city’s proposed wellness plan which the city claims will offset the rising costs in health insurance premiums.

“What I’m talking about with this wellness program is something that will curb our costs going forward,” said Gonzalez.

But the $150 a month, or $1,800 a year, which is at most what an employee could receive on such plan, doesn’t do much to soften the blow for firefighters.

Currently, a majority of firefighters are on the premium plan and pay $344 a month.

Next year the city is proposing firefighters shell out $600 a month.

Which is equal to an extra $256 per month, or an extra $3,000 per year.

But it goes up from there.

According to numbers provided by the city, in calendar year 2018 the city is asking firefighters on that premium family plan contribute around $13,000 in health insurance a year.

That’s about $10,000 more than they are paying now a year.

But the city is offering $1,800 a year through the wellness plan to cushion the deductible.

It doesn’t do much for the members of Local 51.

“When you subtract $1,800 from $10,000 that’s a pretty large increase,” said Thompson.

We went over the increases with Gonzalez, who admits the wellness plan doesn’t quite mitigate the additional expenses for firefighters.

But with that wellness plan in place, Gonzalez says hopefully, rates wouldn’t get as high as they’ve been projected.

‘Until we change our behavior we aren’t going to change our claims history,” said Gonzalez.

The cities high health insurance claim volume is a contributing factor in the high insurance premiums. If the city can reduce its health insurance claim volume through a wellness initiative, then it could, in Gonzalez opinion, result in reduced health insurance premiums.

KFOX14 asked whether the El Paso Fire Department has a higher claims history than other city departments.

“When it’s cheaper you would, I think, if I had a low cost premium package, just like if you had one, that you would go and use it anytime you needed to because it’s a great plan,” said Gonzalez.

But the wellness initiative won’t offset the health insurance spike for firefighters, its for all city employees.

“This isn’t picking on one department this is looking at all departments; this is looking at the entire city,” said Gonzalez.

So in looking at the entire city, KFOX14 wanted to know how it compares to the police union contract.

El Paso police officers make more than El Paso firefighters, according the city’s own data online.

“Entry-level police officer makes about 10 percent more than a rookie firefighter and of course that disparity grows as they go up in their rank. For example their assistant chiefs actually make more than our chief,” said Thompson.

So even though the police officers were offered a similar health insurance plan, the impact to their salary is less substantial.

KFOX14 asked Gonzalez about the pay differential between what firefighter make and what police officers make.

“Yeah, but you have to look at everything holistically when you look at police officers, you have to compare them to police officers when you look at firefighters you have to compare them with firefighters, you have to compare it to the market,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez doesn’t want the comparison to be made between firefighters and police officers but the city’s proposed fact sheet compares how much firefighters pay for insurance versus other city “non-uniform” employees.

KFOX14 asked Gonzalez what a city employee makes at a year salary versus what a firefighter makes as a yearly salary.

“There’s a difference there obviously. If you look at the pay scale at the same job class, but they’re not the same job class — a firefighter jumps into a burning building just like a police office does different things,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said because most of the Police Department is on the “basic plan” they’re actually expected to make money off of the wellness plan.

The city is proposing raising the starting pay for a rookie firefighter by about $2,000 and adding an additional pay level for firefighters who cap out at the highest pay grade.

Currently an entry level firefighter makes $36,852 the city is proposing increasing that to $38,697.
On the pay scale, once a firefighter reaches $57,193 they currently “cap out.” The city is proposing adding another tier, to $57,765.

Representative Dr. Michiel Noe and Mayor Oscar Leeser expressed their concern that veteran firefighters who have ‘capped’ out on their salary, will be shouldering the increase to their insurance without the ability to offset it with raises.

Both the city and the union said a resolution could be reached right up until the May 9 election.