El Paso voters approve all three firefighter propositions

El Paso’s city firefighters put on a costly campaign to get their message out to the voters and it paid off in Saturday’s election.

Voters approved all three propositions of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 51, ending a yearlong collective bargaining process that failed to yield agreement with the city on wages and health insurance benefits.

The firefighters’ proposition to give them a second chance on failed drug tests passed 20,203 to 14,165; the proposition on wages passed 19,289 to 15,039, and the proposition on health insurance benefits passed 23,437 to 11,202. A vote against the proposition was a vote in favor of the city’s offers on the three ballot items.

“We would like to thank the voters, the volunteers, campaign staff, and all the firefighters who worked the election,” said Paul Thompson, second vice president of IAFF Local 51. “The support from the public has been tremendous. After the results are finalized, the firefighters of El Paso will respect and honor the vote.”

Thompson said Local 51 attributes the election victories on all three propositions to successfully “educating the voters on the issues, preparing in advance for the referendum election and knowing we weren’t asking for too much. Firefighters will always be there for the citizens of El Paso.”

City officials responded to the election results Saturday night with a statement.

“During the election process, the city provided the facts to the public so voters would have a clear understanding of the cost to them as taxpayers,” the city’s statement said. “Now that the election is over, the city will respect the wishes of the voters and will, as always, support the El Paso Fire Department for the great service they provide in our community. Our next step is to move forward and focus on upcoming budget discussions.”

Taking an issue to a referendum is always a gamble because neither the city nor the firefighters could predict how the community will vote on an issue that could result in a tax increase.

IAFF Local 51 officers said an early survey of voters indicated that 82 percent of the respondents supported the firefighters. Then, a specific purpose committee, “Yes! Yes! For El Paso First Responders,” was created for the campaign, spending more than $149,500 to support the referendum through such actions as polling, consulting, telephone banks, signs and mailers, according to the committee’s campaign finance reports.

Analysts attributed the momentum for the firefighters’ campaign as the main reason for the city’s record early voting turnout (20,433) between April 27 and May 5. That number compares with the 7,572 early votes cast in May 2011, which was also a nonmayoral city election year.

“I’m not surprised at the support that the firefighters received,” city Rep. Lily Limón said. “Theirs was a well-organized effort. I saw their signs everywhere, big ones and small ones. They had mailers, and they had people calling on the telephone asking to support them.”

According to Saturday’s ballot, voters approved 3 percent wage increases for firefighters effective the first pay periods after Sept. 1, 2015, Sept. 1 , 2016, and Sept. 1, 2017.

Voters also approved the proposition calling for 22 percent increases (on the current premiums) for the health insurance premiums paid by firefighters in calendar years 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Under a third proposition that voters approved, a firefighter who tests positive for an illegal drug will get a “second chance” opportunity for rehabilitation. Under the city’s proposal, a firefighter would have been fired with the right to appeal to an outside arbitrator.

The IAFF Local 51 stated in its campaign fliers that because of the 2008 recession, El Paso had agreed to defer firefighter pay increases. The labor union also said that firefighters should receive the same starting pay as city police, which is $40,525 a year.

A starting firefighter in El Paso receives $36,800 a year compared with firefighters in Irving who start at $49,464 and firefighters in Lubbock who start at $46,698 — both cities with populations of less than 250,000. El Paso has about 674,500 residents.

According to El Paso city officials, the firefighters’ referendum alone will cost taxpayers with an average home value of $124,190 an extra $10.31 a year in 2016, $19.13 in 2017 and $28.19 in 2018.

City Manager Tommy Gonzalez had said that escalating costs for health care was forcing the city to charge the firefighters higher premiums for health insurance. The city has a self-funded health insurance, which is administered by Aetna.

Voters had to decide the firefighters’ labor dispute with the city after the collective bargaining negotiations that began a year ago failed. The City Council voted unanimously in February to take the dispute to a referendum.

Although the city came up with a different offer more recently, it was too late to place it on the ballot, and the IAFF Local 51 members were unable to complete an internal election to accept or reject the city’s latest offer before Saturday’s election.

The city had offered the firefighters a way to offset the higher premiums by participating in a wellness program with financial benefits worth up to $1,800 a year. The IAFF Local 51 said not all firefighters would qualify for the program.

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at 546-6140.

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