The president of the Ceres Professional Firefighters Association made an appeal last week for the Ceres City Council to dig a little deeper into coffers to offer better salaries. The request comes as the city is staring at a $1 million deficit as it formulates a budget for its upcoming new fiscal year.
Firefighters are currently working under an expired contract. The city wants a new agreement in place by June 30, the day before the start of the 2017-18 fiscal year. The city is also in negotiations with the labor union representing Ceres Police personnel.
"We still have a significant budgetary challenge," Ceres City Manager Toby Wells told the Courier. "Our revenues are growing at a two to three percent clip but our expenditures are growing at a four to six percent clip."
Ceres Fire Captain Mike Miller spoke to the council about supporting his union's labor contract proposal which was discussed in closed session later in the evening. No reportable action was taken.
Miller said he doesn't want the council feeling like firefighters don't understand the tough times the city finds itself in but shared his take on how local firefighters are being treated.
"Our members did not receive raises based on class and comp studies done in 2006," said Miller. "We gave up 10 percent of our pay several years ago and have gone without cost of living raises for over eight years. We endured several years of frozen step increases and debilitating."
Miller said Ceres Fire is now equal to or less than Los Banos, the city that ranks number 12 on a list of cities comparable to Ceres.
"We used to have parity with the police but now our middle engineer rate is $400 to $500 per month below an entry-level officer and our captain rates are $800 to $1,000 per month below police sergeant. Our entry level firefighters, they don't come anywhere near an entry-level police officer; and slightly higher than a non-managerial code enforcement officer."
Miller claimed his department continues "to lose personnel to neighboring agencies for better pay and opportunities at an alarming rate, resulting in large amounts of precious general fund money required to hire and train new recruits."
Wells disputed that claim, saying Ceres has last two firefighters in the last two years.
"The department is relatively stable," said Wells.
Miller concluded his remarks by saying "even with the mentioned deficiencies in our contract, our members are still motivated to provide the citizens with premium fire protection and emergency services. I believe this department has been able to provide these great response times and truly professional service largely due to resource sharing agreements with Modesto, Stanislaus and Turlock fire departments. The items that we're asking for will have minimal impact to the general fund yet would show appreciation for the many years of personal sacrifice from our members of this organization during such hard budget times."
Wells said Miller's comparison to other cities only focused on salaries while the benefits and retirement were not addressed.
He commented that it is unfair to compare police and fire salaries because the jobs are different and so is the recruitment environment.
"When I open up a position for a police officer I get 10 applicants and I'm lucky if one of them is worthwhile," said Wells. "But when I open up an application for a firefighter I get 200 applicants and 150 of them are great. There's a lot of people who want to be firefighters and there's not so many who want to be police officers."