Merced unions OK wage freezes

MERCED — The Merced City Council last week ratified two less-than-generous union contracts with perhaps the city's most important employees — firefighters and police officers.

While all sides voiced their general satisfaction with the contracts' outcome, the austerity agreements, which froze wage increases among other things, came at a time when the troubled economy has forced the city to tighten its belt.

"We came to a very good agreement," said Merced City Manager John Bramble of the contracts. "They understand our financial situation, and we understood their issues."

While the two agreements saw each union give concessions in the form of wage freezes, they were limited in duration and will be renegotiated within a short period.

The Merced Police Officers Association, which represents roughly 100 officers, agreed to a two-year contract with a wage freeze, but received a slight improvement in medical coverage. The last contract the association signed was in 2006.

Wage freezes are becoming common among public employee groups that could bank on a raise in a typical year. The recession led the Modesto City Firefighters Association to delay a promised raise this year. Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies also have agreed to a wage freeze.

"I'm pleased with the outcome because there are a lot of cities faced with layoffs and work furloughs and reductions, and we were able to come to an agreement with the city where we're not losing anything," said Keith Pelowski, president of the MPOA.

The Merced Fire Fighters Local 1479 of the International Fire Fighters Association, which represents 62 firefighters in Merced, signed a one-year contract that includes a wage freeze. The contract includes an increase in out-of-pocket medical costs, said Jeremy Franklin, the secretary of the firefighters union.

Aside from minor concessions, the union was happy with the contract, said Franklin, especially with the economic situation being as bad as it is. Most of all, they wanted to avoid layoffs, and they did, he said.

The two unions had been in negotiations with the city since late summer.

While neither union lost wages or jobs in the new contracts, this is the first time in recent memory their contracts have included wage freezes.