LC City Council votes down firefighter election request

LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - A request by the Lake Charles Firefighter's Union to put a millage increase on the November 2012 ballot was unanimously voted down Wednesday night by the City Council. In their request the Firefighter's Union was asking the City to levy and collect a 4.92 mills property tax for a period of 10 years to support a 20% pay increase and to provide funds for nine additional firefighters.

When negotiations started back in August the City told the Firefighters Union they were projecting a $3,000,000 operating deficit and could not afford a pay raise.

"We've been negotiating with the City for a while and this is an ongoing problem we always run into. With the City not having any money we just felt like it was the only other alternative to put it before the voters. At least let them have the opportunity to decide," said Will Veuleman, President of Lake Charles Firefighter's Union.

In his presentation to the Council, Veuleman said the election cost would be split by the Union and the City. Should there be an election, the union was also requesting $100 per month "food allowance" for every employee until the election was over. During their discussion Council members said it was bad timing on the fire department's part. In addition the Public Works and Police Union asked the Council to not support the resolution because it did not include all departments.

"I have concerns I really do have concerns with this. Because when you start putting stuff on a ballot - where does it end," asked Marshall Simien, Lake Charles City Council. "Both the Police Union and Public Works Department have declined taking a raise. They said we understand the economic times and budget constraints you guys are working under and we will go with what we have now. Just remember us when things start turning around. What makes the firefighters different?"

"I'm not saying that the Police are overpaid. I'm not saying the Public Works are overpaid. I'm saying we are underpaid," said Veuleman.

Lake Charles Firefighters currently start out making a little over $26,000 a year. This does not include overtime or state supplemental pay and an annual 2% Civil Service raise that eventually kicks.

"Our sister cities like Lafayette and Alexandria - their firefighter starting salaries are lower than ours. So I don't think it's fair to say we are totally underpaid on starting salary. Would we like to have more? Of course. But I think we have come a long way," said Mark Eckard, Lake Charles City Council.

"I think it is a bit selfish in all honesty. And what I'm telling you is no one is starving with the firemen. No one! They have jobs and they have the opportunity to be off long enough for a second job the way the fire department work schedule works," said Rodney Geyen, Lake Charles City Council.

"If this is not on the ballot - I've not made it a secret that the guys will not entertain a contract with the City," said Veuleman.

"From what I'm hearing the Firefighter's Union tonight is off base. Union's usually take into account the economic climate when making a request like this. My boss is the voters and they told me they weren't looking to pay for anything else. A perfect example is when we were just discussing charging a fee for garbage pickup... we had a whole room full of people who came and said y'all need to rethink this," said Luvertha August, Lake Charles City Council.

After more than an hour of discussion the Council unanimously voted down the request. Veuleman said the Firefighter's Union would meet to discuss their next move of the negotiation process.

"I think the City did an injustice tonight. The voters should have been given an opportunity to make up their own minds," said Veuleman. "We are going to have a meeting tonight about what to do next. We aren't quiet sure what our next step is."

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