Monday, April 20, 2009 | At the same time the Mayor’s Office and the city firefighters’ union have been hashing out a salary and benefits freeze, Fire Department officials have been pushing the creation of a new rank that will be available to scores of city firefighters and comes with a pay raise of up to 5 percent.

The new position, called Firefighter III, was lobbied for fiercely by the firefighters’ union during last year’s labor negotiations. The Mayor’s Office agreed to support the creation of the new rank last year as part of its annual contract with city firefighters, and the new position was approved by the city’s Civil Service Commission earlier this year.

The new rank is due to be considered by the City Council on Tuesday. But while the Fire Department could start promoting Firefighter IIIs as early as July, the mayor’s 2009 budget makes no mention of the new position and does not set aside any money for the pay raises.

The move has the potential to add an estimated $450,000 in increased salary costs to a budget that was strung together largely on pay and benefit concessions wrung out of or thrust upon the city’s labor unions.

Councilman Tony Young said he wants to know more about the fiscal impact of creating the new rank before he agrees to anything that will provide a pay raise for city employees in the current economic climate. He said the Fire Department has likely “fluffed up” its budget, knowing that the new classification was coming down the line and that the promotions will have to be paid for somehow.

“We can’t have any fluff in the budget,” Young said. “The City Council needs to be the fiscally responsible group now, and we’ve shown we can do it.”

The department has a tiered employment system: Most of the city’s firefighters currently fall into one of four categories: Firefighter I, Firefighter II, Fire Engineer and Fire Captain. The new position will be open to any firefighter who has held the rank of Firefighter II for three years, holds a class B commercial driver’s license and has completed certain training courses.

Fire Department and union officials said the new position and the pay raise will provide a much-needed incentive for firefighters to remain at the department and will aid efficiency by creating a new level of supervisors for junior firefighters.

Fire Chief Tracy Jarman hasn’t pinned down exactly how many employees the department will need to promote to the new rank, said Assistant Fire Chief Javier Mainar.

Mainar estimated that the city needs about 141 firefighters in the position — one for each of the three shifts for each of the city’s fire stations.

The promotion of 141 firefighters to the new position would cost the department about $450,000 — money that’s currently not included in the mayor’s budget. Mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said the Mayor’s Office never budgets for an employment classification until that classification actually exists.

“It’s a process issue,” Laing said. “There’s a system and you follow the system.”

Laing said Jarman could ask the mayor for more money to be included in the department’s budget when it is revised in May.

Or Jarman can choose to allocate the department’s existing budget as she sees fit, Laing said. The chief may decide to promote firefighters to the new rank while holding off on employing new trainees, or she may choose to delay making promotions until she can secure extra funding in future years, Laing said.

Frank DeClercq, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 145, said the new rank will encourage firefighters to complete the advanced training courses and the pay raise will provide a much-needed incentive for firefighters to obtain class B commercial driving licenses.

Mainar said the Fire Department has recently faced a shortage of employees who are qualified to drive fire trucks and other apparatus.

Under Department of Motor Vehicles rules, the holder of a commercial driving license is penalized more severely for driving infractions than the holders of noncommercial class A licenses, even if they’re ticketed when they’re not working, Mainar said. That discourages firefighters from obtaining the commercial licenses, he said, but firefighters’ concerns about the commercial licenses would be offset by a pay raise.

Hadi Deghani, the city’s personnel director, said the Personnel Department researched whether the Firefighter III position was warranted on behalf of the Civil Service Commission. He said his department concluded that the new position was necessary because the duties that a Firefighter III will perform are not encompassed in any existing job classification in the Fire Department.

Deghani said the city’s labor negotiations had nothing to do with his department’s decision and said the Mayor’s Office has no say in his department’s findings.

But Brian Marvel, director of the Police Officers Association, which pushed for the creation of a Police Officer III for nine years before it was approved by the Civil Service Commission last year, said the mayor’s blessing is crucial to succeeding in creating a new employment classification.

“There’s no way the Civil Service Commission would support it if, for example, the chief of police got up in front of them and said he didn’t support it,” Marvel said.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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