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Firefighter labor group proposes increasing starting wages
Uptick could improve recruitment process

Mike Kontz, vice president of the United Yavapai Fire Fighters Association, a local labor group, and president of the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority's local chapter, on Monday, March 26, addresses the Authority's board of directors concerning a proposed wage increase for starting firefighters. (Max Efrein/Courier)

Mike Kontz, vice president of the United Yavapai Fire Fighters Association, a local labor group, and president of the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority's local chapter, on Monday, March 26, addresses the Authority's board of directors concerning a proposed wage increase for starting firefighters. (Max Efrein/Courier)

More fire board meeting news from March 26

CAFMA REPLACING PHONE SYSTEM

The Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority’s board has approved the purchase and installation of a completely new Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) system for the entire authority at a cost of $77,977.16.

VoIP is a technology that allows voice calls to be made using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular (or analog) phone line.

The authority recently discovered that their current VoIP system has a number of issues, none of which can be fixed without replacing the system.

“The system is going to fail, it’s already failed twice, and when it goes down, we have no way to bring it back up; and that’s every phone system within our agencies’ boundaries,” CAFMA Fire Chief Scott Freitag told the board on Monday, March 26.

The current VoIP system was already a dated system when adopted by the Central Yavapai Fire District about five years, Freitag said.

“That’s why it’s past its service life at five years,” Freitag said. “The systems that we’re looking at now would be new systems. We’re not making the same decisions that were made five years ago by a different administration.”

CYFD BOND REFINANCING

The Central Yavapai Fire District (CYFD) board has directed the district’s staff to begin a bond refinancing process through Stifel, a financial services holding company.

A 10-year interest rate being paid by CYFD on $3.75 million in bonds is currently at 4 percent and will gradually hike up to 4.5 percent by the end of the 10 years.

Stifel estimates it can bring that percentage down to about 3.1 percent (including the cost of its services).

Now that the board has agreed to work with Stifel, the company has about a two-week turnaround to proposition banks and receive bids on the bonds.

If Stifel does not come back to the board with an attractive deal, the board can choose to terminate the arrangement at no cost to the fire district, said Paul Gales of Greenberg Traurig, who is part of the placement team working on the project.

“There are no costs to the district unless a financing is consummated,” Gales said.

SPELLED OUT CONDUCT POLICY

In response to behaviors exhibited by members of the public during recent fire board meetings, the boards of the CYFD, CVFD and CAFMA have officially posted a notice in its designated board rooms outlining the general rules of conduct that the public must abide by when attending the meetings.

“These are unspoken rules,” said CAFMA Fire Chief Scott Freitag. “I think any town, city, fire district or any other entity that has a board expects that people will conduct themselves in a professional manner and follow generally accepted, common, sensible rules of conduct.”

For instance, the notice states: “Meetings are open to the public, but not as a public forum. Civility, courtesy and respect will be maintained at all times.”

It then goes into further detail as to what that means and how the board may respond if the rules of conduct are violated.

“It captures the essence in the statutes of how business should be conducted,” Freitag said.

The next regular monthly fire board meetings will take place on Monday, April 23, in the Town of Chino Valley’s council chambers, 202 N. Highway 89, Chino Valley. Board times vary, but usually the CVFD board meeting begins at 4 p.m., followed by the CAFMA board and then the CYFD board.

Last year, the Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority (CAFMA) hired on five new firefighters.

“They’re great guys,” said Mike Kontz, vice president of the United Yavapai Fire Fighters Association, a local labor group, and president of the CAFMA chapter.

That said, there were only 30 applicants for the positions.

“We see that as a huge problem,” Kontz told CAFMA’s board of directors on Monday, March 26, during their regular monthly meeting. “That’s ridiculously low. We should be seeing numbers like 100 to 200 people testing, and we should be seeing people from all over the state, if not even from out of the state testing for us.”

To address the apparent recruitment issue, Kontz – on behalf of the United Yavapai Fire Fighters Association – is proposing that the authority raise its starting firefighter wage from $14 to $14.71 by dropping the bottom two steps on its wage scale. If approved, it would cost the authority about an additional $320,000 a year, said Dave Tharp, chief of administration for CAFMA.

For many years, firefighter wages were not addressed by the local labor groups due to the financial restraints that the districts were going through, Kontz said. That started to change last year, when they convinced CAFMA to raise its overall wages for its employees by 2 percent in fiscal year 2017-2018. However, Kontz and others don’t believe that 2 percent is enough for those on the lower end of the pay scale since Arizona started raising its minimum wage in 2017.

“Minimum wage is going up every year until 2020, so that’s obviously going to cause more and more problems as time goes if we don’t do something about it,” Kontz said.

CAFMA Fire Chief Scott Freitag agrees it is a concern.

“I’ve seen signs around town for fast food restaurants or entry-level warehouse making the same as a starting firefighter that has a lot of training behind them,” Freitag said.

The reason it’s a perceived problem is that fire agencies throughout the state are beginning to hire more now that the economy has mostly recovered from the Great Recession, and most are paying their employees more than CAFMA is, which puts CAFMA at a significant competitive disadvantage when trying to attract new talent.

For instance, Kontz heard that Tucson Fire Department is currently trying to hire a bunch of new firefighters.

“If their starting wage is $6,000 to $8,000 higher than ours, you get an 18-year-old kid who’s not necessarily set in place here, what’s to keep him from uprooting and going to Tucson, or not testing with us and spend all his time testing for Tucson?” Kontz said.

Before CAFMA’s board approved the 2 percent wage increase last year, the authority was dead last on a wage and benefits survey taken by the authority last year that included 17 other fire agencies in Arizona. With that 2 percent increase, it now sits fifth from the bottom in the 24th percentile. If the proposed increase for starting firefighters is approved for the fiscal year 2018-2019 budget, then that would bump CAFMA into the 35th percentile.

“The board in the past has stated that they would like to see us at the 50th percentile, and strive to be at the 75th percentile,” Kontz said. “Considering how professional our guys are and how they’re looked at in the state, I think that’s a good goal to look at. We deserve it.”

All three fire boards – CAFMA, Central Yavapai Fire District and Chino Valley Fire District – will be considering the proposal and its feasibility during a public total budget review meeting at 10 a.m. Monday, April 9, at CAFMA’s headquarters in Prescott Valley, 8603 E. Eastridge Dr.

Follow Max Efrein on Twitter @mefrein, email him at mefrein@prescottaz.com or call him at 928-445-3333 ext. 1105.

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