Merger hopes rekindled as Millbrae firefighters see pay increase

A major hurdle to the merger of fire departments for four Peninsula cities was cleared Tuesday when Millbrae firefighters received pay increases comparable to the county average.

Millbrae officials, who along with San Bruno officials have been planning to merge fire departments with Burlingame and Hillsborough, reached a new 18-month deal Tuesday with the local firefighters union. The agreement is a significant step toward the proposed fire alliance, Millbrae Mayor Gina Papan and City Manager Ralph Jaeck said.

Dennis Haag, chief of the Millbrae and San Bruno fire departments, said the issue of salary parity between the cities was one of the major roadblocks for the merger. If the fire departments are to work under the same umbrella, firefighters from all four cities must be paid the same amount, he said.

Burlingame and Hillsborough merged to form Central County Fire Department in 2004 and have saved $1.4 million annually since. One of the last steps taken before the consolidation was raising Hillsborough firefighters’ salaries and benefits about 17 percent, said Ed Hawkins, president of the San Mateo County Firefighters Local 2400 union.

“If the pay is all the same, it certainly makes it a lot easier,” Hawkins said.

Having a contract in general is also important, Jaeck said, as the fire department had gone there years recently without a deal before receivingone before their last expired agreement.

San Bruno and Millbrae — which share battalion chiefs and truck services and save $300,000 apiece — are aiming to save more money by joining their neighboring cities. Millbrae and San Bruno have been saving $100,000 since December when longtime Millbrae Chief Haag took the helm of San Bruno’s department as well.

The contract gives firefighters cost-of-living increases retroactive to Jan. 1 — when their last contact expired — and again on Jan. 1, 2009. There was also a 5 percent general salary increase. The firefighters will be about 9 percent behind the county average after they were as bad as 18 percent behind previously, Jaeck said.

The four cities are awaiting the results of an independent report studying the possibility of a merger, to be released in a month or two, before its councils vote on the merger.

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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