Many Hoquiam firefighters and community members hope that city officials will repeal a decision to lay off four firefighters, taking their case to the city council at a Tuesday night meeting.
When members of the council arrived at city hall, they were met by about 50 firefighters and their supporters who stood on the sidewalk holding signs and wearing fire department hats and T-shirts. The demonstrators then filed into the council’s meeting room, filling all of the seats and spilling into the lobby area. Among them was Larissa Rohr, one of the firefighters who will soon be jobless. The layoffs will be effective Thursday.
“We were part of a brotherhood in a union, in a city we wanted to serve. … Hoquiam has become our home, and our coworkers and their families have become our family,” Rohr said.
Rohr, like the other firefighters impacted by the cuts, became a member of the Hoquiam Fire Department in 2013. But ambulance calls decreased by about 10 percent last year, decimating the city’s ambulance fund and prompting the city’s decision to cut back the department. Finance Director Mike Folkers said he and other city officials had hoped ambulance revenue would return to normal levels again this year, but so far that hasn’t happened.
“Ambulance fees are our largest source of revenue (for the ambulance fund),” Folkers said. “Calls for service means money, and we’re at a point where we have to do something.”
Many members of the audience asked why city officials haven’t found another way to make up the lost revenue, perhaps through an EMS levy. But Folkers said the city’s EMS levy has already hit the 50 cent limit and state law prohibits collecting any more money.
Other Hoquiam departments have already suffered cuts in recent years, and many employees who plan to retire won’t be replaced.
“There’s just not much we can do,” Mayor Jack Durney said. “We don’t have much in the way of assets to sell off anymore. No one wants to buy a cemetery.”
Longtime Councilman Byron Hyde, who retired at the end of last year, approached the council with a potential solution: decrease the council from 12 members to seven members, decrease the council members’ salaries to $50 per month and decrease some city officials’ salaries by $100 per month. Then, use the saved money to pay the firefighters’ salaries. The council didn’t take action to consider his proposal.
The layoffs aren’t the first point of contention between city officials and the Hoquiam Firefighters Union.
The union filed a grievance regarding staffing changes earlier this year and has been working with the city since November to finalize a new contract. Durney said the union hasn’t made the negotiations easy and failed to attend the most recent meeting.
“I understand how all of this works, but it makes it difficult to discuss with people who have differing opinions (when they don’t come to meetings),” Durney said.
But union President Doug Stankavich argued at the council meeting that the situation hasn’t been handled fairly. He and other union members never agreed to a date and time for the negotiations — they were simply told to show up or lose the right to speak. He said the meeting was scheduled during one of his shifts, so he wasn’t able to attend.
“When it comes to labor negotiations, the time and place need to be agreed upon,” Stankavich said. “They were never agreed upon.”
Stakavich also urged members of the council to get involved. He said that a few members — Richard Pennant, Denise Anderson, Paul McMillan and Bill Nelson — had already reached out to hear both sides, but others have been more resistant. Stankavich and others who spoke at the meeting worried that the council had previously heard only one side of the story.
The City of Hoquiam and the Hoquaim Firefighters Union will resume labor negotiations today.