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Agreement reached on firefighters’ contract, pay raises

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Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry smiles as Diego Arencón, president of the firefighters' union, speaks at a news conference Monday to brief reporters on a new union contract that includes pay raises. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry smiles as Diego Arencón, president of the firefighters’ union, speaks at a news conference Monday to brief reporters on a new union contract that includes pay raises. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Years of acrimony gave way to smiles and handshakes at City Hall, at least on Monday.

Mayor Richard Berry and Albuquerque firefighters reached agreement over the weekend on a new one-year contract that will give the union its first raise since Berry took office in 2009.

They announced it on Monday in a joint news conference.

Firefighters will get a raise of at least 2.5 percent. Drivers and lieutenants will get 4.5 percent.

It’s the first raise for firefighters since the city cut their pay about 2.5 percent in 2010 to help keep the budget balanced during the Great Recession. There’s still pending litigation centered on the pay cut, which was imposed even as a union contract called for raises. The new contract doesn’t resolve the litigation.

The new agreement resolves a different source of tension between the administration and union – the practice of “union time,” in which union leaders draw their regular city pay while handling labor matters during the workday.

Albuquerque employs about 660 firefighters.

The new agreement calls for each firefighter to donate some vacation hours to a pool that union leaders can draw on when they want to be paid for union work. The city’s contract with the management union – mid-level supervisors, planners, accountants and others – has a similar provision.

Berry on Monday mentioned the pay cuts firefighters and other employees had endured early in his administration, and he said they were critical to avoiding layoffs.

“We had to make some very severe budget cuts,” Berry said Monday. But, “today I think we have a great foundation to move forward.”

Diego Arencón, president of the firefighters’ union, said 78 percent of the union’s eligible members participated in the vote and they passed it at a rate of 94 percent.

“This is a pivotal agreement for Albuquerque’s firefighters,” he said. “It’s a great step forward.”

Berry said the contract is the “first of its kind” between his administration and the fire union.

The City Council helped break the four-year stalemate in negotiations. Councilors Dan Lewis and Ken Sanchez sponsored legislation earlier this month to make an extra $1.8 million available for firefighters.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Sanchez, the council president, said Monday.

Under the new contract, a “firefighter first class” will make about $47,000 a year, though the amount varies based on speciality pay and other factors. The salaries for drivers will start at about $51,000.

The successful fire negotiations are a contrast to what happened last month with the police union. Members of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association rejected a proposal the administration said included a 2.5 percent raise and retention incentives.

Like the fire union, the APOA had been due to get raises under a contract negotiated by Berry’s predecessor, then-Mayor Martin Chávez, but instead, officers’ pay was reduced about 2.4 percent to help balance the budget in 2010.

Police Union President Stephanie Lopez said afterward that the proposal wasn’t adequate to ease concerns of rank-and-file officers who believe they are entitled to pay raises negotiated under Chávez.

Many of the city’s other union groups also remain at odds with the administration. This year’s city budget includes the first across-the-board raise offered by the Berry administration, of 1 percent. It cannot be given to employees covered by unions, however, without negotiating new contracts.

City councilors made money available to offer more than 1 percent to the police and fire unions.

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