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          Front Page

Taxpayers Foot $81K Salary for Union Chief

By Dan McKay
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          The president of Albuquerque's firefighter union enjoys an annual city salary of $81,000 a year — far more than what's typical for someone of his rank.
        The increased salary was negotiated as part of union agreements adopted in 2008 and goes to whoever serves as president.
        It's intended to motivate rank-and-file firefighters to try for the job, said Diego Arencón, the union president. He's held the position for the last 2 1/2 years.
        "It's an incentive for the lower ranks to get involved," he said.
        Arencón, who joined the Albuquerque Fire Department in 1997, is on the books as a "firefighter first class." That means he would normally make about $45,000 a year. Instead, as union president, he makes about $81,000 a year.
        He's the only city union chief to draw a higher city salary than he would otherwise. The heads of the police and blue-collar unions, for example, get paid their regular salary, based on their rank or job title.
        Arencón is also allowed to devote himself full time to union duties. That's not uncommon for Albuquerque's union leaders.
        City Councilor Sally Mayer says that the higher salary is too much and that the union itself could provide the extra pay on its own.
        "I think if the union wants to pay the union president more, that makes sense," Mayer said. "It makes no sense for the city to have to pay that extra money for the union president."
        The union has been politically active. It was the first group to endorse Mayor Martin Chávez's re-election bid, for example, in February, months before he announced his campaign.
        Chávez ultimately lost to businessman Richard Berry in the Oct. 6 mayoral election.
        Arencón draws a higher city salary than other union heads, but he's worth it, said Paul Broome, a labor-relations consultant to Chávez.
        Arencón works in almost an adjunct capacity for city Human Resources, Broome said, addressing problems and heading off litigation. The fire union has relatively few personnel disputes with the city that land in court or arbitration, he said.
        "He resolves far more problems than he creates," Broome said. "In terms of savings for the city, the additional pay was minuscule compared to the savings that's generated by the sound labor relations we have with that union."
        Broome said Arencón has been helpful in cracking down on firefighters charged with drunken driving. Nine firefighters have been arrested for DWI this year, including two in the past two weeks.
        The union has negotiated settlements in some cases to avoid litigation.
        "The settlements have included dramatic reductions in pay and punishments for the employees who have been in the DWI situation," Broome said.
        The higher salary is a national trend, Arencón said, as other unions consider ways to motivate their membership. In Albuquerque's case, "our union attendance is unprecedented," he said.
        "I'm the lowest ranking firefighter to hold this position," he said.
        The salary might seem high, Arencón said, but the work is demanding. Firefighters work 48-hour shifts, so they live together part of each week. That means calls come in to the union president at all hours of the day and night, he said.
        Arencón is expected to show up at everything from fires to arbitration meetings, he said. He dedicates his entire attention to union duties.
        Under the old system, the fire union president just kept whatever salary he or she made normally, Arencón said. But the union is now succeeding in getting the rank-and-file involved in union leadership.
        "That's never happened in our union," Arencón said. "It was always officers in that position."
        Asked whether the union should pick up the extra salary for a president — instead of having the city pay — Arencón said simply that the provision was negotiated with the city and "was an area we felt was important."
        The firefighter union contract expires in 2011.
        Broome said it's not unusual for union presidents to draw a city salary of some kind. The blue-collar union president, for example, makes his or her normal salary and is given 40 hours a week to attend to union business.
        Similarly, the police union president, Joey Sigala, makes about $48,000 a year — the standard rate for a patrolman first class, which is his rank. Sigala said he loses money as union president because he used to receive hours of overtime as part of the DWI unit. Now he devotes full attention to his union duties.
        Mayer said she isn't convinced the extra pay for a union president is warranted, even though she likes Arencón personally.
        "I think that's outrageous," she said. "I like the guy, but I had no idea we paid a premium for someone to be a union president."

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