City may settle with fire union

Watertown Fire Department on South Massey Street. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — After five years, the final major legal battle between the city and the firefighters union should be decided Monday night.

Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero said the two parties are expected to vote Monday night on a proposed accord regarding a contentious manning clause.

They agreed Friday to avoid an arbitration date, ending a contentious fight over the city violating the minimum manning clause in the contract, Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191 President Daniel Daugherty said.

Members of the City Council reached a consensus on the agreement in executive session Tuesday night.

“I think everyone is in agreement and will vote to accept it,” Councilwoman Ruggiero said, adding council members cannot take action until the document is signed by Mr. Daugherty.

Under the agreement, the city will agree to pay $129,000 in a penalty payment to the firefighters. That is $4,000 less than the city’s offer to settle the agreement on the contact violation.

The main sticking point of the five-year dispute has been the minimum manning clause, which requires 15 firefighters on duty at all times.

Over the years, the city spent about $900,000 in legal bills to fight the minimum manning issue, citing that it could not afford the costs and it should determine the Fire Department’s staffing levels.

Mr. Daugherty said the city approached the union with the settlement.

“My feeling over the situation is the same I’ve always had,” Mr. Daugherty said. “The union primarily wants the terms of our contract not to be violated through unilateral action. In the event of a violation, we will seek to defend our rights and the enforcement of our contract through the grievance and arbitration process.”

The city violated the union contract on the day after the 2017 election when former City Manager Sharon A. Addison implemented a policy that prohibited firefighters from being called in to work when their colleagues call in sick.

At the time, Ms. Addison admitted the policy violated the contract because it unilaterally reduced minimum staffing of the Fire Department from the required 15 bargaining unit members required to 13. The city rescinded the policy last week, Mr. Daugherty said.

The state Public Employees Relation Board, the courts and interest arbitration hearings all agreed that minimum manning clause was legal, but the city continued to ignore those decisions, he said.

While he acknowledged the city violated the contract, Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. said the city decided to settle because it was not successful fending off the union in the courts or with arbitrators.

Mayor Butler disagreed that the $129,000 is a penalty. Instead, he said it’s pay for not backfilling firefighters for sick time when 13 or 14 firefighters worked, not the required 15 were supposed to be on duty.

“We’re paying them for work that they never did,” he said.

The mayor also objected to Mr. Daugherty’s comments about defending the union.

“He was defending the union, I was defending the taxpayer,” he said.

Councilman Cody J. Horbacz said the settlement was one of his goals before leaving office Dec. 31.

The contract dispute started before he got into office, but he’s leaving with a big accomplishment, he said.

“My time on council is complete,” he said.

The settlement should be signed within the next day or two.

The nuts and bolts of the contract was decided during two days of “interest arbitration” hearings last year when firefighters were given 1.5 percent retroactive salary increases for years 2014-15 and 2015-16.

In August, they received about $1 million in back pay for those years. The nearly $1 million doesn’t include retro pay for the past three years.

The city and the union still have to negotiate contracts for the years beyond 2016.

Despite the agreement, the city and the union are appealing a recent state Supreme Court decision.

In August, state Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky gave partial victories to both the city and the union regarding the city assigning firefighters and a captain to work out-of-title duties.

Since then, the city and the union filed notice of appeals with the Appellate Division, Fourth Department in Rochester.

The union is appealing the decision that a battalion chief is doing the work of the eliminated position of municipal training officer. The city was not satisfied that the judge ruled that firefighters on the department’s rescue truck should receive out-of-title pay for working as captains on the rescue truck.

It will probably be about a year before those issues get resolved in court in Rochester. When it’s decided, it will be the last of the legal wrangling between the firefighters union and the city.

Mr. Daugherty said the union would be willing to hear any agreements that the city proposes for contract years after 2016.

Terry O’Neil, the Long Island lawyer who represented the city during most of the litigation for the city, is no longer handling the city’s litigation in the Fire Department matters.

City Attorney Robert J. Slye will handle the upcoming negotiations.

The legal expenses have accumulated to about $900,000 from the time when Mr. O’Neil’s firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC, was hired in 2015.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(1) comment

Holmes

Definitely was the time to go all volunteer...

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