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Oak Harbor firefighters respond to budget emergency

Oak Harbor Fire Department Chief Mark Soptich addresses the city council Tuesday. The department’s union, one of only two that represent city employees, volunteered to waive cost of living increases for 2011 to help alleviate Oak Harbor’s budget crunch. - Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times
Oak Harbor Fire Department Chief Mark Soptich addresses the city council Tuesday. The department’s union, one of only two that represent city employees, volunteered to waive cost of living increases for 2011 to help alleviate Oak Harbor’s budget crunch.
— image credit: Justin Burnett / Whidbey News-Times

To help fight a financial blaze at City Hall, Oak Harbor firefighters are dropping their water hoses and picking up their pocketbooks.

For the second time in as many years, the department’s union has voluntarily agreed to waive an annual cost of living increase. The concession was made largely in light of the city’s ongoing budget crunch.

“We’re just trying to do our part,” said Rich Cuevas, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4504.

Although Oak Harbor has weathered the recession comparatively well, city coffers aren’t as full as in recent years. Since 2010, the general fund budget has decreased from $16.25 million to an anticipated $15.67 million in 2012.

To help combat the effect, non-represented city employees, including department heads, were told last year they would not receive cost of living increases in 2011 or 2012. They have traditionally received annual raises of 2 percent.

Firefighters and police, represented by separate unions, were asked to voluntarily waive raises. Police, operating under a three-year contract that extends through 2012, declined.

Firefighters’ Local 4504 had just finished its existing contract and agreed to the city’s request under the proviso that the issue would be revisited in 2011. Cuevas said recent meetings with city officials made it clear the situation had not improved, so union members decided to once again forego a bigger paycheck.

Cuevas said these are tough times and cost of living increases are needed. However, union members were unwilling to push for a raise when most city employees are being forced to go without.

“Ultimately, it’s the right thing to do,” Cuevas said.

Consisting of eight members, a 2 percent pay increase for Local 4504 tabs out to a savings of about $18,272 a year. While it’s not a huge number, the firefighters’ voluntary concession isn’t lost on city officials.

“It’s a recognition that these are tough times and we’ll all be staying in the same boat,” City Administrator Paul Schmidt said.

Detective Ron Hofkamp, president of the Oak Harbor Police Association, said last week the union has not yet been approached with a request to waive their contractual right to a raise.

If the matter is brought before them, it will have to be voted on, Hofkamp said. He declined to speculate on how much support such a request would receive.

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