The Kern County Board of Supervisors announced a negotiations impasse with the Kern County Firefighters Union, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1301, over a new collective bargaining agreement during a board meeting on Tuesday in Bakersfield.
With the impasse declared, the county and the union will continue their negotiations, which will be overseen by an independent third party.
The impasse follows two years of unsuccessful negotiations, according to County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop.
"After two years, we have failed to reach an acceptable resolution to address the Department’s fiscal crisis, while also maintaining effective fire services for our residents throughout the county," Alsop told supervisors on Tuesday morning.
Alsop reported to the board on Tuesday that Kern County has struggled with its fire fund since property tax revenue took a hit in 2016.
"Cost increases related to labor with no commensurate decrease in spending or increase in sustainable ongoing revenue sources continue to perpetuate a structural budget deficit in the county's fire fund," Alsop told supervisors.
Alsop said the budget deficit may reach $9 million in the next fiscal year if left unaddressed will continue to grow. He added that if left unchecked, the deficit will continue to be a burden on county finances and other county services.
He noted that services and plans that could be impacted include a planned countywide communications service for first responders and firefighters.
Alsop said that the county has asked Kern County Fire Department to implement reforms for overtime policies and reduce those costs by at least $3 million annually as recommended by the county's Auditor-Controller. He acknowledged that Fire Chief David Witt has done an excellent job in providing high-quality service while attempting to reduce costs.
Devin Brown, Kern County's human resources chief, said the recommendations fall in line with the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Brown added that one of the major points of contention between the county and the firefighters union is what can be considered paid overtime. He added the union is asking that paid sick leave should be counted as time worked in terms of overtime eligibility.
"We are also not proposing any salary increases through this contract term, which we would propose expire on June 30, 2021," Brown said.
However, he said the union is asking for a total of 26% increase in base salary in a contract that would expire Jan. 1, 2025. The salary increases wouldn't start until 2021.
David Nelson, a Kern County firefighter and paramedic and IAFF Local 1301 president, said the union's vote to reject the county's offer isn't based solely on new overtime pay calculations.
The union rejected the last offer a 429-1 vote at the beginning of May.
"It is our fourth contract in a row with concessions being given to the county without any changes in our compensation packages," Nelson told the board. He added that previous negotiations had included significant increases for retirement and medical contributions.
"We have done our part to help the county, we have given back," Nelson said. "On top of giving back, we are working longer hours and in more dangerous conditions facing fire conditions that are beyond what anyone has experienced in previous years."
Nelson said the union's counteroffer was meant to act as a working document in which both parties could hammer out an agreement. Sliding back across the table without discussion was disrespectful, he added.
"The lengthy contract is a win for the county because it keeps us out of constant negotiations, decreasing your labor and my labor and expenditures," Nelson said. He added would also fall in line with the county's budget streamlining process and would have saved the county $40 million over the next five years.
He added that $17 million alone has been wasted because firefighters are leaving the department for employment at other agencies.
"Your Kern County firefighters have been subjected to ridicule, painted in a negative light with other county departments and blamed as the reason other departments aren't able to save wage increases or have had to cut services," Nelson said.
He said the reason for the budget problems is related to the county not properly funding the fire department from the start.
Witt told supervisors that based on a recent operational analysis, he will be leading a review of the KCFD's entire fee schedule in a way that addresses the department's fleet of vehicles and engines.
He added the department has obtained a consultant to study costs and services associated with contract cities such as Ridgecrest and Tehachapi.