A fire truck based at Station 21 in Colorado Springs responds to a traffic accident Wednesday, August 28, 2013. (Gazette file photo)

Colorado Springs has been “good to firefighters,” so voters shouldn’t support an April 2 ballot question that would grant them collective bargaining rights, Mayor John Suthers said at a Monday night forum.

But the next mayor might not be so “friendly” to the fire force, said John Roy, deputy campaign manager for the Professional Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 5.

“We have city leaders that turn over every four years. But we have people, firefighters, who are dedicating 30 years of their life to this community. So we feel like the experts, the people who step on and off the firetruck every day, should have that guaranteed voice,” Roy told more than 150 people gathered at the Penrose Library downtown for the event, hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Pikes Peak Region.

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Roy repeatedly said the measure’s motivation was to ensure that the experts have “a seat at the table,” not to put more money into firefighters’ pockets. “Nobody would dispute that we’re compensated fairly,” he said.

But Suthers said if the measure passes, the department could seek a three-year agreement that would “throw the city’s budgeting process into real chaos.” If the city were forced to abide by such a pact even during a recession, then other departments, including police and public works, likely would take financial blows.

“Unionizing our Fire Department will ultimately lead to unionizing a broad range of city employees, would be unfair to police, city linemen and many others,” Suthers said. “It will not be in the best interest of our taxpayers.”

Many firefighters have seen raises in recent years, and the salary for the agency’s most populated position is now $80,000, Suthers said.

Per an agreement, Local 5 may meet with the mayor up to four times a year to discuss issues, he said.

The city also has committed millions of dollars over the next few years to replace some of the department’s aging fleet and has hired more firefighters, the mayor said.

But fire officials are concerned that response times aren’t low enough, especially in the city’s outskirts, Roy said. The department’s “response time standard” is about 8 minutes, but the National Fire Protection Association recommends that firefighters reach a structure fire within 4 minutes, he said.

Plus, the department has two fewer staff members than it did in 2008, even though it fields 25,000 more calls a year, Roy said.

“If Issue 1 doesn’t pass, it could be a detriment to public safety,” he said.

Local 5 asked the City Council last summer to place the measure on the ballot, but the mayor urged the council not to do so. The council postponed a vote on the issue, so Local 5 petitioned the question onto the ballot, collecting about 16,000 signatures last fall.

Even if voters approve the question, firefighters can’t strike. State law prohibits public safety employees from walking off the job during labor disputes.

If the measure passes, any matters that the city and the union couldn’t agree on would be referred to an arbitrator. If either side didn’t accept the arbitrator’s decision, then the issue in question would be put to voters.

Such a special election would be expensive for the city, Suthers said.

But the likelihood of that happening is “so low,” said Roy. More than 15 fire departments in the state have similar agreements, and they haven’t driven a special election in more than 25 years, he said.

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