Denver City Council agreed Monday night to defer raises for the city’s firefighters and suspend other benefits in an attempt to save millions as the city faces a historic budget crisis during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In all, city and union officials agreed to about $7.5 million worth of savings for next year, said Dave Foster, International Association of Firefighters Local 858 president. Council approved that agreement, which came in the form of a memorandum of understanding, on a 12-1 vote.

The union’s current contract — approved in 2018 — runs through the end of 2021, but the group agreed to tweak that document due to the city’s current financial crisis, Foster said. Plus, the new agreement offers the union some assurances in return. City officials have agreed not to close fire stations or lay off firefighters next year, he said.

“The last thing we want to do is see services cut for our citizens,” Foster said.

In return, the union will concede certain benefits such as holiday pay and retirement contributions, Foster said. It will also defer a 3% raise firefighters would have received on Jan. 1 until Dec. 31, 2021. Those concessions amount to about $7,000 per firefighter, he said.

But Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, the sole vote against the agreement, said in the spirit of consistency she couldn’t support any agreement that includes raises while other city employees face furloughs.

“No raises means no raises,” Sawyer said. “And so in the interest of fairness and on principle and consistency, I cannot support this MOU, just like I did not support the PPA contract.”

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That PPA — Denver Police Union — contract mentioned by Sawyer was ultimately rejected by council. It also would have given officers a raise. However, because council voted against that measure, the matter went to a third-party arbitrator, which, ironically, gave police more of a raise than they would have received if council had approved the original proposal.

Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval noted that the firefighter union didn’t have to defer their raises. Their current contract would have allowed them to demand a pay increase at the first of the year. Negotiating the deferment could be taken as an act of solidarity with other city employees who must take unpaid furlough days, Sandoval said.

While the fire union’s current contract tweak is now set, Foster said the group will still begin negotiating another multi-year contract this spring.

Denver officials have asked all of the city’s departments to earmark potential savings opportunities within their budgets for next year due to the massive projected tax revenue shortage. Often those savings come in the form of paused projects, deferred maintenance payments and unpaid employee furloughs. First responders such as firefighters and police officers, however, stand alone in that they are not subject to those unpaid furlough days.

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