Colorado Springs firefighters union to get City Council vote on collective bargaining ballot item
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Firefighters extinguished a kitchen fire Monday afternoon at an apartment complex near Galley Road and North Murray Boulevard. (Photo courtesy of the Colorado Springs Fire Department.)

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The Colorado Springs City Council will vote whether to place a collective bargaining issue on the ballot next year for the city's firefighters, council President Richard Skorman promised Tuesday.

Scores of firefighters stood shoulder to shoulder in council chambers Tuesday, clad in navy blue shirts. The council has until the last Tuesday in January to vote on the issue if it is to be placed on the April 2019 ballot.

The firefighters are overworked, underpaid and working with aging, dilapidated equipment, said Dave Noblitt, president of the Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 5.

"In 2017, there were over 11,000 hours of mandatory overtime," Nobblit told the council. "That's over 460 shifts where the men and women behind me were effectively told they were unable to go home."

With collective bargaining status, the union could negotiate for higher pay. But firefighters couldn't strike for raises because Colorado bars public safety employees from walking off the job during labor disputes.

The union submitted a petition, signed by 80 percent of its members, indicating it intends to petition a collective bargaining issue onto the city's ballot this or next year. But city officials said the petition didn't follow the proper procedures to secure a ballot question, so the union would need to either sue, reword the petition or drop the issue.

John Roy, Local 5's political action liaison, invited the council to help craft a ballot question for its initial vote. That way, the council has a say in what residents might see on the ballot.

He said the union wants to use nonbinding arbitration between the city and a neutral party, and members don't want to raise city taxes.

Still, Roy said, "Our seat at the table is crucial for the public safety of the city."

The firefighters are now about 10 percent below market pay, Nobblit said. And the department is short about 50 firefighters, while call volume is up 33 percent since 2008.

Skorman and Councilman Bill Murray, a former firefighter, said they favor the move.

Councilman Merv Bennett later said he does not, though he does support paying firefighters more eventually.

Mayor John Suthers delivered a similar message last year. He touted the resurrection of stormwater fees as a possible route to free money for firefighter raises. Voters approved the fees in November, which has alllowed the city to hire eight firefighters this year and two additional staff members. That money also is to be used to hire 20 new police officers.

Suthers could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Bennett said it will take more time to use money freed by the fees to give firefighters raises.

Councilman Don Knight said he likely won't support a move toward collective bargaining but will read the ballot language before he decides. He said he does support equity between the police and fire departments sharing the newly freed money.

The city's 2018 budget, approved in November, contains $5.5 million in pay raises for police and firefighters.

Also during Tuesday's meeting, the council clarified existing laws by approving three ordinances that now explicitly outlaw unlicensed marijuana grows in non-residential zones and prohibit the unlawful transfer of marijuana.