Ballots have been mailed to Colorado Springs residents for this year’s municipal election. In addition to mayor and three at-large city council seats, voters will weigh in on a single ballot initiative -- Issue 1 -- which would grant firefighters a collective bargaining contract with the city.
On a frigid morning in Colorado Springs, John Giacoma and Jason Jones were out knocking on doors in a neighborhood near UCCS.
“We’re not selling anything, we’re just firefighters,” explained Giacoma to a skeptical homeowner. “[We’re] out talking about a ballot initiative that’s going to be coming out on April 2nd. Have you heard about Issue 1?”
“Yeah, tell me about that real quick,” the man replied through a thin screen door.
Giacoma explained that Issue 1 would formalize the relationship between the firefighters and the city of Colorado Springs. “What we’re trying to do is hammer down a contract, get some things written down,” he said. “For a city our size, it’s appropriate at this point to have something confirmed.”
The agreement would give firefighters legal leverage in discussions with the city about pay, benefits, equipment, and other aspects of their job. As it stands now, when city officials make decisions about the fire department's budget, they’re under no obligation to get input from rank-and-file firefighters. They do anyway: Mayor John Suthers meets quarterly with representatives of the local firefighter’s union. But Giacoma said he wants that relationship guaranteed in writing, to ensure that it continues.
“What we want to do is, moving forward, when there is a new city council, a new fire chief, a new mayor, new city administration across the board, we want to make sure we have some consistency,” he said.
The Colorado Springs firefighters union, IAFF Local 5, has been pushing for a contract with the city for some time. Last fall, the union petitioned to put the issue on the ballot and easily gathered the 16,000 signatures necessary to do so.
But the effort is not without its critics. Chief among them is Mayor Suthers, who says the agreement is totally unnecessary. He argues that a collective bargaining agreement is likely to create a suite of new problems for the city.
“Once you start unionizing city employees it's only a matter of time before you've unionized the entire city workforce. That will bring inefficiencies, greater numbers, and will not inure to the benefit of the taxpayers of Colorado Springs,” Suthers explained.
Colorado Springs is unique among major cities in the state, in that public safety employees don’t have union contracts with the city. In Denver, Fort Collins and Pueblo, for example, firefighters and police are covered under collective bargaining agreements. Proponents of Issue 1 have said they see that as evidence an agreement would be appropriate here.
Suthers argues though that other cities have much larger public workforces as a result of collective bargaining. “The the per capita tax burden of largely unionized towns is much much higher,” he said.
Those in favor of the ballot issue disagree. Jesse Weddle is with Firefighters for A Safer Colorado Springs, the group leading the “vote yes” campaign.
“We're not asking to raise taxes,” said Weddle. “We can't force the city to raise taxes. Most of us within our organization are Colorado Springs residents -- none of us want to raise taxes. We just want to know that the tax dollars we already pay are being allocated effectively to protect our families and your families.”
He argued that the purpose of the measure is not to increase staffing, raise salaries, or otherwise direct additional funds to the Colorado Springs Fire Department. The measure also won’t mean that firefighters can go on strike, which is illegal under state law. He said the goal is simply to ensure that firefighters have a voice in policy decisions.
“Firefighters in this city work here for up to 30 years and so they have a historical perspective of where the city has been and where it's going to be going. And we think it's important to have that voice at the table so that new politicians, when they come into new city leadership, doesn't have to learn everything from scratch,” said Weddle.
Mayor Suthers, though, remains skeptical about the potential effects of a collective bargaining agreement, and the overall aims of the “vote yes” campaign.
“Let me tell you something: you don't run a collective bargaining campaign and be honest about what you want because you won't win if you do. You've got to say we just want to make sure public safety is protected. We just want a seat at the table,” he said.
Voters will decide on April 2.