Firefighters ordinance vetoed

December 17, 2016 GMT

Mayor Tom Henry on Friday vetoed an ordinance designed to adjust the insurance deductible for retired city firefighters, prompting condemnation from three Fort Wayne City Council members.

The ordinance, brought forward by the firefighters’ union and sponsored by Councilmen Tom Didier, R-3rd, Paul Ensley, R-1st, and Tom Freistroffer, R-at large, would reimburse 50 percent of the insurance deductible for about 85 retired firefighters in 2017 and 2018. The rates doubled from $600 in 2016 to $1,200 in 2017, Jeremy Bush, president of the city firefighters’ union, told the council Tuesday.

The ordinance was approved in a 6-3 vote. Councilmen Jason Arp, R-4th, John Crawford, R-at large, and Glynn Hines, D-6th voted against the measure.

Firefighters were not included in meetings leading up to the change, Bush said, which happened after the department’s contracts were negotiated and ratified this year by members of the union and the City Council. Under the ordinance approved Tuesday, the firefighters’ union would be able to renegotiate the issue during collective bargaining for its contract starting in 2019.

“It’s one thing to respect a process; it’s another thing to let our families on fixed incomes bear the brunt of such a significant oversight,” Didier, Ensley and Freistroffer said in a joint statement Friday.

The provision would apply only to firefighters who were hired before Jan. 1, 2014, who retire or resign with a job-related disability pension. The reimbursement would apply only to 50 percent of the lowest deductible available, which is $1,200. Any retired firefighter who voluntarily chose a higher deductible plan would be limited to $600 reimbursement.

“The estimated (total) cost would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000, but that is an estimate because … there could be some individuals that wouldn’t go over that threshold of $600, they might not even use it, so the impact could be even less than that,” Bush said Tuesday.

Henry’s administration opposed the change Tuesday, with City Attorney Carol Helton and Fire Chief Eric Lahey arguing against the measure. The design of the insurance plans have never been negotiated, Helton said, noting that everyone found out about the changes at the same time.

“As we know, health insurance costs have been continually rising. We have $26 million in claims for 2015 and we are set to exceed $27 million for this year,” Helton said Tuesday. “We have tried to balance those costs between the money taxpayers are expected to contribute to our plan and what employees are expected to contribute to our plan.”

Lahey said although he understands the needs of retired firefighters, many of whom are friends and former co-workers, the change would also mean a significant impact on the fire department’s budget. Lahey said he was not involved in discussions related to increasing the lowest deductible plan from $600 to $1,200.

“As I look at this from the perspective of an administrator in the Fort Wayne Fire Department, I have to make very crucial decisions on what I cut,” Lahey said Tuesday. ”$50,000 represents 10 air packs, represents 20 sets of gear, and those are the decisions I’m going to be faced with making if this ordinance goes through and I have to find a way to cut that $50,000 out of the budget.”

Henry defended his decision in a statement Friday afternoon, stating that although he appreciates the firefighters’ position, the ordinance undermines the collective bargaining process.

“This ordinance creates an unfunded mandate and would result in additional expenses beyond our already approved budget,” Henry said. “As I have stated before, I believe collective bargaining has contributed to our ability to be a nationally-recognized, high-performing city. Therefore, I must act to protect our award-winning employees and continue my commitment to making Fort Wayne a great place to work.”

On Friday, Didier and Ensley both said an attempt to override the veto is likely when the council resumes meetings next month. A two-thirds vote of all City Council members is required to override a mayoral veto. The last time that happened was in June 2014 when Henry vetoed a bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for all of non-public safety unions.