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Flame War 

A lot of dirt has been thrown in the ongoing dispute between Jefferson Parish and firefighters in the East Bank Consolidated Fire Department, and it has served only to muddy the main issue: paying firefighters. Other areas of contention are drug testing, disclosure of prescription medications and sick leave policies — but firefighters are most concerned with how much they are paid. For their part, parish officials should focus on keeping the fire district's Class 1 fire protection rating, which is the highest in the state.

  The dispute escalated after Oct. 3, when the Jefferson Fire Fighters Association (JFFA) voted to censure parish Homeland Security Director Deano Bonano and interim East Bank Fire Director Dave Saunders. The union also issued a vote of "no confidence" against the two men. JFFA leader Bob Burkett, a former Jefferson firefighter, says the vote was taken because of many disagreements firefighters have had with Bonano and Saunders over safety, equipment and salaries. Three weeks after the vote, according to Burkett, Saunders proposed making changes to firefighters' work schedules, annual pay increases and overtime. Jefferson Parish special counsel Mickey Landry says the proposed changes to the parish "red book," which contains regulations for the firefighters, would result in a 20 percent decrease in annual income for the average firefighter. Burkett says the changes would cut firefighters' pay 25 percent. Whichever number is correct, the move smells of payback.

  The Jefferson Parish Council is scheduled to vote on the amendments this Wednesday (Jan. 14). We think the council should think twice before cutting firefighters' pay and jeopardizing Metairie's fire safety rating.

  The parish and firefighters negotiated the current pay plan just two years ago — the first new pay plan in 17 years. The new pay plan gave firefighters a 35 percent pay increase — to make up for the 17-year gap and to put them on par with similarly situated firefighters in other jurisdictions. The plan also included scheduled overtime and yearly raises. Scheduled overtime is based on a 56.5-hour average workweek, which has been a fire department standard for decades. The firefighters' work schedule was reviewed by a parish consultant in 1993 and determined to be cost-effective.

  Now, parish officials say they must revise the plan — or raise property taxes on homes and businesses in the fire district. The proposal would reduce firefighters' yearly raises from 5 percent to 2 percent and change their work schedules to reduce scheduled overtime significantly.

  Firefighters' pay is the crux of the matter, and it is what parish officials and the firefighters' union should be discussing in earnest. Instead, both sides have lawyered up, and the parish has hired a PR firm, the Ehrhardt Group, to get out its message to voters. Part of the parish's message is that the current pay plan and work schedule costs taxpayers too much money, and the proposed changes would save roughly $2.8 million a year. Firefighters dispute those numbers and ask: What about the money parish officials are spending on lawyers and a public relations campaign? Wouldn't that money be better spent solving the problem? The Gambit last week filed a public records request for the exact amount spent on PR and attorneys in this matter, and the amount reported was more than $173,000.

  As for the other proposed "red book" amendments — drug testing and sick leave — Burkett admits the rules could stand some updating. He adds that firefighters have never had a problem with drug testing, and he agrees that firefighters should report any medications they may be taking to the parish's medical review officer, a qualified physician. (Firefighters should not have to share personal medical information with anyone other than a physician.) The parish has also claimed firefighters who receive full pay when recovering from injuries will sometimes work other jobs that require as much physical exertion as their firefighting duties. The parish wants the rules modified so firefighters who are able will have modified duties while recovering from injuries. The union has agreed to this. Problems solved.

  It will take more compromises to solve the pay discrepancy, and a resolution demands that both sides put out the rhetorical fires. The goal should be protecting homes and businesses while maintaining Metairie's Class 1 fire rating.

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