Yael T. Abouhalkah

Firefighters’ victory a costly loss for Kansas City taxpayers

Kansas City firefighters are used to getting their way at City Hall and did so again on Thursday.
Kansas City firefighters are used to getting their way at City Hall and did so again on Thursday. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Costing taxpayers millions of extra dollars, the new Kansas City Council members who were supposed to be so “transparent” with public funds did something on Thursday that elected officials have done for decades at City Hall.

Cave in to the intimidating fire union.

The elected officials held no public hearing on a rushed new wage pact for the firefighters.

There was no substantial discussion of the merits of it.

Just a few self-serving, “I support public safety” comments from council members and — boom — the contract was backed on the same day the council approved the $1.5 billion 2016-17 budget.

As has happened too often over the years at City Hall, the politicians treated firefighters differently from all other city employees, giving the fire union potentially bigger raises for a five-year term.

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Remember, these are the same firefighters who this year are on pace to blow through their overtime pay allocation by almost $5 million. That’s right: The firefighters are being rewarded with even more pay even though they couldn’t stay within their current budget.

All nine new council members who took office last August voted for the wage pact. Only an irritated Mayor Sly James and two-termer Scott Wagner initially opposed it. Veteran Scott Taylor was absent.

It was a disappointing development, to say the least, especially after hearing so much on the campaign trail from Teresa Loar, Heather Hall, Dan Fowler, Kevin McManus, Quinton Lucas, Jolie Justus, Alissia Canady and the rest about how they were going to be eagle-eyed custodians of tax dollars.

It was disappointing because I’ve been impressed by people such as Justus, Hall, Canady and Lucas for their willingness to ask good questions on other issues in their first term in office.

James took a swipe at the sudden turn of developments — after all, a council committee last week had unanimously passed a more conservative wage pact — in a blog after the vote.

“And we must make funding decisions based on facts and data — not scare tactics or political posturing,” he wrote.

Make no mistake: This was a political loss for James, who couldn’t keep the council in line on a crucial vote on the new budget.

To a degree, I understand why the council members could not withstand the pushing from the firefighters and leaders of Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

City Manager Troy Schulte had been unable to get the union to agree to a new, five-year pact over the last year.

The agreement approved Thursday will “only” cost taxpayers an estimated $8.4 million more over that term.

Plus, politicians love talking about how much they back public safety and the job they do. It’s a great way to look good.

But Kansas City’s firefighters, despite their continued contentions to the contrary, already are very well paid.

As The Star reported: “A city document shows the 100 top-paid Fire Department employees, including management and 50 union members, each make more than $103,000 annually. According to the city’s Human Resources Department, the current base firefighter pay is $35,172. Average base firefighter pay is about $56,800, but many firefighters enhance their salaries with overtime, special duty and education credentials. Base pay for emergency medical technicians is $36,876 and the average is $51,404. For paramedics, it’s $45,624 and the average is $57,762.”

If — and that’s still a big “if” because union members have not accepted the contract — Thursday’s vote ends things for now with firefighters, city officials can move on to other priorities.

Here’s one: Explain to police and all other city staff members the council members see every day why firefighters get treated differently.

Kansas Citians know why, generally. The union sticks together and is politically active.

That coordination gets results.

Those results just aren’t always positive ones for Kansas Citians.