The county and the Kern County Firefighters Union are at a standstill in negotiations for a two-year collective bargaining agreement.
The County Administrative Office said that on May 8, the union voted down the county’s offer over a disagreement about overtime pay.
The union said the vote was 429 to one in favor of rejecting the proposed contract.
The county formally will request a declaration of impasse from the Board of Supervisors on May 21.
After that, the county and the union will undergo mediation led by a third party in an attempt to reach an agreement.
The county is asking for a reduction in overtime spending by $3.4 million annually, after receiving recommendations to do so by the county Auditor-Controller and the Center for Public Safety Management in a recent audit of the fire department.
The county said these changes would bring the fire department into alignment with Fair Labor Standards Act overtime requirements. With such a cut, overtime pay would still make up nearly a quarter of the proposed $85 million in annual compensation at $27 million.
“Regretfully, we haven’t been able to reach an agreement with the union that both maintains fire service levels and makes real progress in addressing our budget deficit,” said Interim Fire Chief David Witt. “Addressing the fiscal challenges we have is a priority for me, and I’m confident the steps we are taking today will ensure our success going forward.”
Dave Nelson, president of the firefighters union, said the sticking point is that the county wants to reduce pay for firefighters who haven’t had a recent raise.
“When you’re a workforce that hasn’t seen a raise in 10 years and are facing a pay decrease, trying to help the county achieve their financial goals — at some point, you have to draw the line and say ‘enough is enough,’” he said.
Nelson said if the overtime pay cut was approved, firefighters would see a nearly $4,800 reduction in overtime pay.
The negotiations come as the county is dealing with a rise in employee pension costs. The county said the fire department’s 2019-20 budget will require at least a $6.5 million contribution from the General Fund reserves.
By the 2020-21 fiscal year, the county estimates nearly $35 million in reserves and a Fire Fund deficit of nearly $9 million.
“If left unaddressed, this deficit will continue to place a heavy burden on other critical County services and public safety functions,” said Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop. “It also prevents us from keeping pace on capital investment needs for Fire Department facilities, vehicles and other equipment, including the replacement of our aging countywide emergency communication system for our first responders.”