Coleman's elimination of rescue squad angers St. Paul firefighters

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 7, 2012 - 8:01 PM

St. Paul mayor accused of bypassing union's bargaining ability.

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St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Mayor Chris Coleman on Tuesday stoked a running feud with the St. Paul Fire Department.

Coleman sent Local 21 union leader Mike Smith a letter saying he was going to decommission Rescue Squad 2, leaving the city with two remaining specialized squads to handle hazardous-material emergencies and advanced tactical rescues such as building collapses or falls from bluffs.

"The purpose of this letter is to let you know that I have decided to revert back to the chief's original recommended plan for the 2012 operating budget, including the decommissioning of Rescue Squad Two," Coleman wrote.

The mayor's unilateral action angered union members and brushed aside months of negotiations as well as a study of Fire Department staffing by a task force composed of his representatives, City Council President Kathy Lantry, the union and the department's administration.

At issue, according to Smith and the mayor, is the duration of an agreement over staffing and equipment.

The crux of the agreement: The mayor would keep Rescue Squad Two in operation provided the union agree to allow four-person staffing on the rescue squads. The existing union contract -- reinforced by an arbitrator's ruling in 2010 -- requires five-member squads.

Dropping the required staffing would allow the city to keep all three squads in service and prevent fire stations from temporary shutdowns because of low staffing levels. (The higher their staffing level requirements, the lower the number of staff members available for other duties.)

The mayor, however, wanted the agreement to last through 2014 -- an election year -- so the city wouldn't have to renegotiate it next summer. Smith said the firefighters wanted the agreement only through 2013 because the economy could improve.

Smith said the department was willing to give a "big concession" in its contract but the mayor resorted to "strong-arm" tactics. "He's trying to strip our collective bargaining rights," Smith said. "It's just like Wisconsin."

Asked if the union has any prospects for fighting the decision, Smith said: "We've got a lot of things planned."

The mayor and the union have frequently battled over staffing levels. Coleman argues he's doing the best he can in protecting public safety amid cuts in state aid.

Firefighters say Coleman and Chief Tim Butler try to subvert their contract by making decisions on their own. The latest dispute comes as the mayor is preparing to give the outlines of his 2013 budget proposal in a speech at noon Monday. Coleman has said in recent weeks that he will be proposing a tax levy increase under 2 percent.

"Public safety is my highest priority," Coleman wrote to Smith. "Since taking office, I have gone to great lengths to limit cuts to the department during the worst economic climate since the Great Depression."

He said average daily staffing of the department has been trending upward since 2007, reaching more than 114 per day.

Smith said he met with the mayor late last week and was told to either sign on to the 2014 duration for the deal or he would decommission Rescue Squad Two.

Lantry, who participated in task force discussions for months, also wasn't pleased with the result.

"When you're talking about people giving up their [union contract] rights, they need to be at the table," she said, adding, "I wish they would communicate so we would come up with the best plan to protect public safety."

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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