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UPDATE: The union representing Webster Groves firefighters on Thursday, March 16, filed a petition against the city of Webster, claiming it wrongfully terminated the collective bargaining agreement and had no legal authority to do so. Read more here.

 The divide between the city and the union representing its firefighters — and city officials and citizens — continues to grow.

Emotions have been running high since the city council on March 7 unanimously voted to terminate its collective bargaining agreement with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2665 and put in place its own compensation plan for fire personnel.

After more than a year of negotiations, city officials said the two entities were at an impasse. The city accused the union of negotiating in bad faith, which the union adamantly denies. 

The council’s actions sparked a fire storm on social media, with criticism of city officials coming from residents who support Webster’s firefighters, while other residents defended the city’s  actions. Some city council members also got involved in the social media fray.

In an effort to quell the controversy, Mayor Laura Arnold and the city of Webster Groves provided information on social media, in the city’s weekly electronic newsletter, on the city’s website and through newspaper advertisements. It remains to be seen whether the effort will make the city’s position more clear, as Local 2665 disputes several of the city’s claims.

New Compensation Plan

In the absence of reaching an agreement, the city’s last and best compensation offer was implemented immediately. 

The offer, which Mayor Arnold describes as “the single best compensation offer to a set of employees ever adopted by this city,” includes an average 6% increase in pay for all union members every year — the result of a 2% cost of living increase and an annual stipend of $1,000 for each union member.

The benefits also include a continuation of the fire department’s step program, and a new longevity program for union members at the top of the step program. In total, the city will spend more than $11 million on salary and benefits for firefighters over the next three years of the contract, which doesn’t include extra overtime or incidental pay. 

Local 2665 representative John Youngblood said the compensation plan isn’t as generous as the city makes it sound.

“To say these guys are getting a 6% pay increase just isn’t true. When you take in the cost of living, and that the step program and longevity levels are different for everybody, the average increase is closer to 3 to 4%, not six.”

The compensation plan affects six fire captains and 27 firefighters/paramedics. Under the plan, a captain making roughly $96,500 in fiscal year 2023 is scheduled to make $98,450 in fiscal year 2024, and $100,400 in fiscal year 2025.

An entry-level firefighter/paramedic making about $71,250 in fiscal year 2023 would make $72,700 in fiscal year 2024, and about $74,160 in fiscal year 2025. A firefighter/paramedic at the top of the step program making roughly $94,150 in fiscal year 2023 is scheduled to make $96,000 in fiscal year 2024, and about $97,960 in 2025.


Youngblood said the biggest issue — the one that forced negotiations with the city to fail — has to do with minimum staffing levels. 

“The city wanted to reduce staffing to 10 members on duty, which is below the national standards of staffing for safety reasons,” he said.

Youngblood said the National Fire Protection Association recommends a minimum of four firefighters to a truck, but Webster currently has three.

The city, however, claims that the daily staff of 12 firefighters per shift — and four firefighters per truck — has not changed. What has changed is that now, when two staff members are absent, the fire department will operate with 10 personnel on shift. 

“Previously, the city did not have flexibility in staffing, resulting in paying overtime to ‘staff up’ to 12 per shift,” according to the city. “The new implementation retains NFPA best practices, and if two staff members are absent, the city has the authority to keep the staffing level at 10 to address overtime spending.”

The city claims these staffing adjustments put Webster in line with municipal neighbors. 

“Even with the changes to Webster Groves staffing, we remain one of only two municipalities in the entire St. Louis region that schedules staff at 12 per shift and assigns four members to an apparatus during regular shifts,” according to the city’s website and weekly electronic newsletter.

Youngblood took issue with several of those points, calling them false or misleading, at best.

“To say we are one of two municipalities in the region to assign four members during regular shifts simply is not true,” he said.

Youngblood said four staff members to a fire truck is common, and some neighboring municipalities often run five when operating at full staffing levels. 

He also contends that the daily staffing of 12 per shift that the city claims isn’t changing was never 12, but 11. 

“In our previous agreement, daily staffing was at 11 per shift, so when they ‘staffed up,’ they only ‘staffed up’ to 11 — not 12,” he said. “And to say that the new implementation retains NFPA best practices is misleading. That’s only when they’re fully staffed, and frequently that’s not the case because of someone out on vacation or sick time. Now they can drop to 10 per shift and won’t have to ‘staff up’ to pay overtime — they’ll just keep it at 10.”

Youngblood said staffing at 10 means firefighters can become overwhelmed very quickly when fighting a fire, while staffing at 12 helps distribute the workload, therefore increasing safety. The city maintains that the Webster Groves Fire Department is staffed to safely meet the community’s needs.

Overtime Issues

The city argues that the new compensation plan and flexibility in staffing levels are necessary to curb the fire department’s increasing overtime expenditures. 

In fiscal year 2021, the overtime budget was overspent by roughly $63,000. During fiscal year 2022, the department’s overtime pay exceeded the city’s budget by more than $324,000 — roughly 227%. Overtime costs for fiscal year 2023 are already on track to swell beyond the budgeted amount, according to city officials.

But Youngblood said several factors have contributed to that overtime.

“There was COVID. We had a firefighter who had a military deployment. We had a captain injured who was rendered disabled. We’ve had people leave Webster and go to other departments,” he said. “We also have a new fire chief who is very big on training, which is good, but means guys are also pulled out for that. All of this contributes to overtime, and those factors were out of our control.”

Youngblood said even more frustrating is that the union presented four alternate proposals to negotiate with the city on minimum staffing  levels and attempts to reduce overtime, but the city rejected all of them without offering counter proposals.

“We put stop gaps in place where overtime was going to be evaluated quarterly. If it exceeded 25% of the budget, then staffing would drop to 10 for the remainder of that quarter. We proposed the idea of hiring a full time floater for paramedic-only positions,” he said. “We offered compromises that kept the overtime in check while keeping four on a truck, but the city told us none of those were good enough. They didn’t want to compromise, and then used the bogus claim of (us) negotiating in bad faith.”

Mayor Arnold said the city had hoped to compromise, and expressed disappointment that an agreement wasn’t reached.

“I believe in collective bargaining and hoped this process would end with an agreement,” she said. “But after a year, it was clear that we were at an impasse. It was a difficult decision to make. The city values the fire department, but must also be fiscally responsive to the needs of all departments.”