Community members of the Golden Hills Community Services District came to see a fire prevention demonstration at Tom Sawyer Lake and meet Kern County Fire Department staff in the August file photo.

It’s been nearly five months since the Kern County Firefighters Union and Board of Supervisors declared an impasse in negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement, but the two parties will soon meet one last time in the hopes of coming to a deal.

If county officials and the union fail to come to an agreement, supervisors could impose their own conditions to the contract, bypassing a union vote.

The county has proposed cutting $3.4 million from overtime pay as part of its new contract. Although the figure represents a small portion of the nearly $24 million in total overtime pay the county doles out each year, the union has said any cuts to overtime should be met with increases in base pay, citing cost of living increases and the fact that they haven’t earned a raise since 2008.

Lurking in the background of the negotiations is a nearly $9 million structural deficit in the county’s fire fund, the semi-independent budget allocation that pays for the county’s firefighting operations.

The county has been working with the Fire Department for years to eliminate the deficit, but a plan to make the department solvent has yet to emerge.

Cuts to overtime would have slimmed down the fire fund deficit, but the county says raising pay to make up for the reductions in overtime would wipe out any positive savings the fire fund could see from such a move.

“Our position going into these negotiations is we can’t accept an agreement that would have a net cost increase on the fire fund,” said Kern Chief Human Resources Officer Devin Brown.

Only after the deficit has been eliminated should the county look at improving firefighters salaries, he said.

A neutral fact finding panel recently analyzed the situation between the county and the firefighters union, and recommended the county implement a 6 percent raise to all firefighters over two years, along with 5 percent raise to members who maintain EMT certification, to offset the cuts to overtime.

If the county did not offset those overtime cuts, the panel said income levels for Kern County firefighters would fall far behind those other jurisdictions.

“I’ve already got a considerable amount of individuals who are taking tests for other departments,” said union President Dave Nelson. “I have captains on the list with departments in southern California to start all the way over as a rookie fireman. So if we don’t come up with something, as these SoCal Departments hire, we’re going to see a mass exodus from here.”

The panel noted that in 2018, the Fire Department experienced a 6 percent turnover rate, with 21 members leaving to work elsewhere.

The union says that its members earn between 21 percent to 26 percent below the mean. However, whether or not Kern County firefighters are paid lower than their counterparts at the city of Bakersfield is up for debate between the two parties.

A mediation meeting has been scheduled for Oct. 25.

Nelson said he was excited about returning to the bargaining table.

“Maybe the county comes on an ‘aha’ moment, or we come on an ‘aha’ moment,” he said.

Kern County firefighters overwhelming opposed the county’s previous offer, which included the cuts to overtime.

The county says recruitment and retention are not significant issues within the department, but the union worries that if pay levels are not addressed soon, they will be in the future.