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New deal, new day?

New deal, new day?

OMAHA FIRE CONTRACT

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The pact signals the potential for a durable reprieve from recent mistrust.

A tentative labor deal between the City of Omaha and its firefighters union is a sign of progress in the yearslong effort to get good people pulling the same direction.

The pact signals the potential for a durable reprieve from recent mistrust.

Mayor Jean Stothert, Fire Chief Bernie Kanger and fire union President Steve LeClair should be commended for stepping out of comfort zones, with each accepting new ideas on how best to move forward.

Chief among the contract's proposed changes is the fire union's idea to shift oversight of members' health insurance. The union, if its members approve, would run its own insurance plan.

Union leaders believe they can wring out savings that the city and its private health insurance plan director could not — and that the union can do so without reducing benefits.

They say similar plans work in other cities, including Boise, Idaho, and Toledo, Ohio. They point to the Nebraska State Patrol's stand-alone plan as a regional example.

The city would continue to pay the amount in health insurance premiums it currently pays for the four-year length of the contract, $920,000 a month. But that number wouldn't go up. Costs above those premiums would be handled by the union's insurance trust, starting in 2016.

Another important change within the proposal is the flexibility to more efficiently and effectively manage Fire Department personnel. The current contract requires four people on all rigs.

This hampers the fire chief's ability to redistribute his people and resources when an employee calls in sick or is unexpectedly absent. It forces the chief to call in off-duty folks at higher pay.

The new proposal would let the chief run up to two fire units with three people instead of four, as long as those rigs can be operated safely. It could keep sick days from spiking overtime costs.

Among the proposal's other highlights: A little-utilized Elkhorn-area unit would no longer be staffed full time, and the chief would add a new ladder truck where needed by July 2016.

The union gets the guarantee of no layoffs and a new recruit class in 2016 to keep pace with the city's upward population trend and expected retirements. It also gets an 8 percent wage increase over the four years, following a one-year freeze in pay.

The city gets to skip a paramedic recruit class the department says it didn't need and gets some additional flexibility on when it has to pay more to firefighters temporarily promoted by absences.

In all, it's a contract both sides should see as a sign of a collaborative future. It looks like a good deal for the city's firefighters and paramedics, a good deal for the city and a good deal for taxpayers.

The city says it could save about $6.5 million over the life of the contract, a clear representation to Omahans of the value of rebuilding trust.

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