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Firefighters, county reach deal on new labor contract

March 31, 2017 GMT

The labor association representing dozens of Santa Fe County firefighters and paramedics has reached an agreement with the county on a new two-year contract that includes across-the-board pay raises, the union announced Thursday. The deal comes after more than a year and a half of contentious negotiations.

Eutimio Ortiz, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4366, said in a statement that the agreement will “make Santa Fe County safer by bringing wages to parity with other fire departments.”

The county firefighters have been working without a contract since August 2015, the statement says.

In a phone interview, Ortiz praised County Manager Katherine Miller and other officials who listened to the union’s concerns and came to an agreement “that is beneficial to both sides, which is rare.”

The deal calls for average pay raises of about 4 percent, he said.

Former union President Pedro Nandino told The New Mexican in November that the union was seeking 5 percent pay raises, at a cost of just over $400,000 for the two-year life of the contract, while the county was proposing 2 percent raises.

Nandino and union spokesman Michael Judge said at the time, as the union was considering arbitration, that the fire department was struggling to retain experienced firefighters.

“Contract negotiations are tough,” Ortiz said Thursday. When there’s an impasse, he said, “You accept something that isn’t reasonable, or you go to arbitration.”

State law prohibits public safety unions from striking.

But Ortiz said county officials eventually approached the union and helped work toward a resolution. “It’s not just the contract that makes things great,” he said, adding that the lengthy process created a stronger working relationship between the union and the county government.

Miller and county Human Resources Director Bernadette Salazar could not be reached for comment on the contract. County spokeswoman Kristine Mihelcic said in an email that she was out of the office Thursday and unable to provide comment by press deadline.

Ortiz said the county has 76 firefighters and paramedics on its payroll, and all of them are members of the bargaining unit. Another 250 volunteers help the paid firefighting staff serve some 76,000 people living outside Santa Fe city limits, including residents of four pueblos.

“We’re slowly reaching safe staffing levels,” Ortiz said. But, he added, the union would like to see more professional firefighters on staff.

He sees the contract deal as a step in the right direction.

“It’s a big morale booster for us,” Ortiz said, “to get out of this limbo that we’ve been in.”

Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-699-5655 or cmiller@sfnewmexican.com.