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          Front Page




Fire Salary Up in Smoke

By Dan McKay
Journal Staff Writer
       The president of Albuquerque's firefighter union will no longer be paid a commander's salary because the practice violates the New Mexico Constitution and city personnel regulations, according to the mayor's office.
    The salary agreement was reached in 2008 under the mayoral administration of Martin Chávez. It calls for the fire union president to earn about $81,000 a year — about the same as a commander — even if the president is actually a lower-ranking member of the department.
    But a review by the new administration, headed by Mayor Richard Berry, contends the deal isn't legal.
    David Campbell, Albuquerque's chief administrative officer and a former city attorney, said the state constitution prohibits City Hall from paying "somebody for work not performed on behalf of the city." A local ordinance says city employees must be paid according to their job classification and not more than that, he said.
    "Union leaders and members are first and foremost public servants who have jobs with the city," Campbell said, "and their pay is related only to their job and not their extracurricular activities."
    The change affects Diego Arencón, president of the fire union. He estimated in November that he would make about $49,000 a year as a firefighter first class if he weren't union president.
    The union negotiated for the president's salary when it reached a contract agreement with the city in 2008, and the city should honor it, Arencón said. The salary agreement is separate from the main union contract.
    Arencón said firefighters "absolutely" will consider going to court to enforce the salary agreement. Refusing to honor it will cost the city legal fees, even though mayoral executives know "full well that their accusations aren't justified."
    If the mayor's office has a problem with the deal, it should renegotiate it when the union contract expires in 2011, Arencón said.
    The higher salary was intended to motivate rank-and-file firefighters to try for the top job.
    In a memo to Arencón, Campbell said the salary agreement:
    n Violates the anti-donation clause of the state constitution, which bars the city from providing a gift or aid to someone.
    n Might violate state law making it a felony to use or accept public money for "services not rendered."
    n Wasn't properly ratified.
    n Violates the city's "Merit System Ordinance," which calls for employees to be paid according to a classification plan.
    Campbell's memo also says Arencón hasn't been performing firefighter duties or reporting to the regular chain of command. Instead, he's been doing union work, Campbell said. He also told Arencón to report to the fire chief for an assignment.

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