Three of Omaha's mayoral hopefuls sparred Wednesday over a fire union contract that two of the candidates said should be rejected by the City Council.
With less than a week remaining before the council's vote, Councilwoman Jean Stothert, former Councilman Dan Welch and businessman Dave Nabity dissected some of the 220-page contract in front of a standing-room-only crowd at a business group luncheon.
Stothert, one of the council members who helped steer months of negotiations with the firefighters union, said the deal was a hard-fought compromise that will begin patching up the city's massive unfunded pension liability problem right away. She said the deal will save the city $822 million over 50 years — including $30 million by Jan. 1.
But Stothert spent much of the debate fighting off pointed criticism from Nabity and Welch, who said the authority to negotiate the contract should have remained with the mayor, not the City Council. They argued that the city was still looking to ask taxpayers to fund too big a portion of firefighters' pensions and offering a longer list of benefits than departments in other cities.
In particular, the two candidates said the Fire Department would still have too much control over staffing, preventing the city from making layoffs or changing the way it handles certain types of emergency calls.
“What if we bring in a new management team, find out we can do business with fewer people?” Nabity said. “We can't. It totally binds the city from being able to reorganize itself, which is precisely why this contract should be rejected.”
Stothert, however, said the city has already cut the size of the department and still had control of many staffing-related decisions.
“The city is in the driver's seat, and don't think for a minute we've lost the authority,” she said. “You're being misled. We still have that authority.”
Welch and Nabity both argued that the city's cost-savings projections are flawed because interest rates on bonds will change as the country pulls out of the recession.
The contract's length and complexity were also sticking factors. Welch said it includes too many bonuses and benefits for firefighters, additions he calls “hidden treasures.” He took issue with additional pay for medics who take additional training courses and a health care premium increase he said was smaller than that of many employers.
“Union folks will put in provisions we don't understand that will cost us money in the future,” he said.
The forum was hosted by the Omaha Alliance for the Private Sector.
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