‘It’s painful’: Union president on county vote to cut fire negotiations

SEDGWICK, Co. (KSNW) – The Sedgwick County Commission is expected to vote on Wednesday to remove the Kansas Public Employer-Employee Relations Act (PEERA) which covers the county fire union’s right to negotiate.

A vote ‘yes’ would cut the fire union’s right to negotiate contracts for its firefighters and lieutenants, giving the county full control.

A vote ‘no’ would keep negotiations as they have been for the past 38 years where the union and the county have to come to an agreement on things like pay, vacation, benefits, and injury leave.

“We as members of Sedgwick County fire, firefighters and lieutenants, we are still here to respond and serve and protect our citizens. Our concern is who is going to protect us in our terms and conditions of employment,” said Sedgwick County Fire Union President Dave Thompson.

Thompson told KSN, PEERA protects the more than 100 firefighters he represents.

“Without PEERA the firefighters and lieutenants of Sedgwick County would go unprotected in their job securities,” said Thompson. “Basically, the county would take over and could do anything and everything with our terms and conditions and benefits and pay what they wanted to.”

Thompson said if the commission cuts PEERA, he fears the county may take advantage of his fire fighters and make cuts to their paid education and injury leave.

“If we are hurt in the line of duty, we are covered without any depletion of our sick leave or vacation time, the employer takes care of us and the employer so badly wants to do away with that,” Thompson said.

Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Jim Howell sees the removal of PEERA much differently.

“A union negotiated contract is not absolutely necessary. The reality is we are going to treat them like we do every employee,” said Jim Howell.

Howell said the fire department is the only agency in the county that is under a union-negotiated contract. He said the county is funneling resources and money to other public safety departments like the sheriff’s office, EMS and dispatchers without a union backing them.

Howell told KSN the removal of PEERA wouldn’t put firefighter’s pay or benefits at risk.

“We want to certainly recognize our great employees and pay them well and give them great benefits and that’s not going to change,” he said.

Howell also said the removal of PEERA has the potential for the commission to pump more money into the department and in the future make it more solvent.

“I hate to use the word to save money because that’s not the point. The point is the fire district is essentially broke. not yet, but it’s very close,” he said.

Howell would not go into detail with KSN on Monday as to why exactly the county wants to get rid of PEERA. Howell however said it would have the potential to open up solutions to get the fire department’s finances back on track.

Thompson said the union will fight the removal of PEERA at Wednesday’s commission meeting.

The county will honor the fire fighter’s current contract which will expire at then end of 2017.