Bill pits firefighters union, city

A firefighters union and Grand Junction city officials are on opposite sides of a measure that would allow firefighters to bargain collectively, and Gov. Bill Ritter is in the middle.

Ritter is considering the fate of the measure, S.B. 180, the Firefighter Collective Bargaining Act, which the Legislature passed May 1 over the objections of Grand Junction and other affected home-rule cities.

The organization Colorado Professional Firefighters is pressuring the governor, saying he had promised as a candidate to sign such a measure, which the union contends is needed to ensure firefighter safety by giving them a voice in equipment purchases and other matters.

Grand Junction Firefighters Association President Kevin Kuhlman echoed that sentiment, saying, “We want a voice in things that make our job safer.”

That can range from equipment and trucks to staffing and stations, he said.

Pay and benefits aren’t the issue, Kuhlman said.

Grand Junction Mayor Bruce Hill wrote to Ritter last week asking the governor to veto the bill, which in addition to overriding the city charter would require that irreconcilable disputes between cities and unions be resolved by voters.

The bill would apply only to fire departments or fire-protection districts with 50 or more employees.

Supporters describe the bill as a safety measure, which Hill said makes it “kind of mislabeled. If it’s about safety, I think we do that quite well.”

Voters in Grand Junction rejected a measure in 2000 by a 69 percent to 31 percent margin that would have changed the city charter to allow collective bargaining.

Ritter’s signature on the bill could set up a legal conflict over the extent of state power over home-rule cities, such as Grand Junction, said Kevin Bommer of the Colorado Municipal League.

As passed by the Legislature, the bill could affect 24 fire departments or fire-protection districts. Of those, 13 already have collective-bargaining agreements, leaving 11 to be directly affected by the measure. Five of them are home-rule cities.

A decade ago, when the Legislature tried to override a voter-approved requirement that Denver firefighters be required to live in the city, the Colorado Supreme Court sided with the voters, Bommer said.

One provision of the new measure would require voters to decide disputes in a special election if either or both sides disagreed with opinions made after arbitration of disputed issues.

Such elections would see municipalities unable to campaign because of restrictions of the Campaign Finance Act, while union participation would be virtually unfettered, the league said in a letter asking Ritter to veto the bill.

The system in Grand Junction is working, Hill said.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” Hill said, “and why fix it in Denver instead of in our own community?”

Ritter has until June 5 to act on the bill.


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