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Sacramento Firefighters Union Pushes Back as City Moves Toward Reducing Health Care Benefits

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SACRAMENTO -- The Sacramento city firefighters union has gone public with its frustration over contract talks that are at a near impasse.

The contract expired eight months ago and the union says the city wants to eliminate or reduce health care and benefits for current and retired firefighters.

“It’s disheartening, that’s really what it is,” said union spokesperson Roberto Padilla.

The city’s firefighters say they are being treated unfairly because the city wants retired firefighters to begin paying for health benefits, which include mental health care.

They have cited studies showing that health problems crop up often after firefighters retire and before their Medicare benefits kick in.

“PTSD, cancer, suicide, mental health, that’s at the front line of fire service right now,” Padilla told FOX40.

Padilla said the union was one of the first to offer concessions to the city during the Great Recession when the city budget was in the red. It agreed to have members pay more into their pension plan and left contract items on the table to save the city money.

“We’ve always been there for the city,” Padilla said.

“Firefighters have had a sweetheart deal for years,” said Craig Powell, who heads up Eye on Sacramento, a self-proclaimed city watchdog organization.

Powell said the city is on the hook for a whopping $400 million in unfunded retiree health benefits -- and the liabilities are growing.

He said the city has an opportunity to reduce or end the benefits with the new contract.

“None of the new police or park workers or anybody else get this benefit and the private sector nobody gets this benefit,” he told FOX40.

But the union said the danger to firefighter health, which often comes on after retirement, is different from other workers, private or public.

“This is something that we need. This isn't something that we’re vain about,” Padilla said.

Powell argued that with Medicare at age 65, firefighter retirees are in good shape.

“We calculate that every existing firefighter will make over a hundred thousand dollars a year retirement,” he said. “So, they’re going to have plenty of money to pay for their own retiree health care, even if that benefit is eliminated.”

While recently passed Measure U raised the sales tax to benefit, among other things, public safety, that money was earmarked by Mayor Darrell Steinberg for economic growth and uplifting neighborhoods.

He argued that economic growth would bring in money to take care of employee pensions and benefits. But it doesn’t provide money now for retiree benefits that firefighters say they were promised and that they deserve.

“You’re offering a job and you offer certain benefits to help you offset the damage that your body and your mind takes over a 30-year career. And then you pull that, possibly, from under the rug. It’s just not good,” Powell said.

A binding arbitration date has been set for November, at which time an arbitrator must choose the last proposal from the city or from the union with nothing in between. That means both sides risk losing if an agreement is not reached before then.

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