Friday, December 3, 2010 | The Orange County Fire Authority Board of Directors last night shot down a fire union request for a halt to the layoff of a 22-member hand crew today, a move union head Joe Kerr said betrayed a handshake agreement.

Kerr’s request was to extend the hand crew’s employment by 60 days so the Fire Authority would have a chance to study sources of revenue the hand crew could bring in.

The layoff was in addition to a contract amendment approved last night by the Fire Authority board. The agreement moves the retirement formula for union members from 3 percent at age 50 to 3 percent at 55. It also calls for members to give up their cost-of-living raises and contribute — for the first time — to their pensions, and contribute more toward their health benefits.

The givebacks will save the Fire Authority an estimated $27 million.

Kerr said Fire Authority leaders, including outgoing board Chairman Neil Blais, Fire Chief Keith Richter and Deputy Chief Ron Blaul, guaranteed him there would be “no layoffs” if union members approved a contract amendment.

“We won’t be making anymore handshake agreements with this fire chief,” Kerr said. “That day is done.”

Blaul, however, characterized the agreement differently, saying the promise was never meant to include the seasonal hand crew.

“We never discussed the seasonal hand crew in the context of those discussions,” Blaul said.

The debate among board directors over keeping the hand crew, estimated to cost about $300,000 for two months, centered on cost recovery and their operational usefulness during the winter months.

At least some of that cost could be recovered. An official with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy said at the meeting that the organization was willing to pay for several weeks of brush clearing on land the conservancy oversees.

The brush clearing is a fire prevention effort and usually only occurs during winter months. The problem, Kerr said, is the hand crew can’t clear brush during the peak season months because of regulations to protect endangered wildlife during those seasons.

Some board directors who voted against the request said they didn’t see a reason to spend money on the hand crew during off-season months, when the hand crew would likely not be involved in firefighting, and others said they were being rushed to make a decision without having staffers study the issue first.

“I see no reason to go and extend this further until we have a direct need, which we expect to have in late spring,” said Director Martin Rhodes.

Director Bill Campbell, who voted for delaying the layoffs, said he was “frustrated” by the Fire Authority’s handling of potential cost recovery from the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, whose representatives said they had contacted the Fire Authority weeks ago but got no response.

“That’s part of my frustration,” Campbell said. “There was never an answer from this organization.”

Board members voted on two proposals for keeping the hand crew. One would have swapped the hand crew’s winter months with next year’s spring months of employment, and the other would have simply kept the hand crew for two more months as the fire union proposed. Board members rejected both proposals.

Director David Shawver, who said he wanted to keep the hand crew without the swap, said the hand crew could end up saving the Fire Authority thousands.

“If the fire crew could stop one fire, this would pay for itself in the months of December and January,” Shawver said.

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