Fire crews to receive $1M in back pay

Watertown Daily Times File Photo

WATERTOWN — City firefighters will be paid nearly $1 million in back pay connected to the five-year contract dispute with the city.

City Comptroller James E. Mills said Wednesday that the payout for the retro pay and health benefit deductions will be “just a couple of thousand dollars short of $1 million.”

The payouts — scheduled to go out on Aug. 28 — will bring the city current to the contract through July 1, 2016. Firefighters are receiving 1.5 percent salary increases for years 2014-15 and 2015-16, under results from a so-called “interest arbitration” ruling that came out in late June.

Daniel Daugherty, president of Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191, said he thought the payout figure was going to be more like $700,000.

When told the actual amount, Mr. Daugherty said, “I’m a little surprised. I didn’t think it was going to be that much.”

Fire department members can either pick up their checks at the fire station or have them delivered by mail, he said.

City Manager Rick Finn said he knew that Mr. Mills was working on tabulating the amount that the city will have to pay but had not heard the actual figure.

“I knew it was going to be in that range from what I saw in the past,” he said. “It’s definitely a significant amount of money.”

The payout was budgeted and will come from an account that the city has had for when this moment arrived, Mr. Mills said.

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 2016 and the years beyond.

A three-member panel — consisting of Terry O’Neil, the lawyer who represented the city; union attorney Nathaniel Lambright and an impartial arbitrator — held two days of hearings last fall on the “interest arbitration.”

The interest arbitration hearing determined the nuts and bolts of the overall firefighters’ stalled contract, including such issues as how much firefighters are paid and how much they pay for health benefits.

According to the interest arbitration, union members also will be given a new incentive for firefighters calling in sick. Firefighters will be paid $1,000 if they don’t call in sick during the year, $500 if they call in once and $250 for calling in twice.

The department also is entitled to twice the amount in the health care buyouts but will pay more for the cost of health benefits, from 12 to 14 percent.

The legal bills for the long drawn out contract continue to mount. The legal expenses now total $893,259 from the time when Mr. O’Neil’s firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King, PLLC, was hired in 2015.

Since the end of June, the city paid another $8,550.55.

Mr. O’Neil remains representing the city for one more aspect of the contract, the minimum manning arbitration case that will be heard by an arbitrator in November.

The minimum manning clause — whether 15 firefighters should be at work at all times — has been the main sticking point during the city’s contract stalemate with the firefighters’ union.

Mr. Daugherty has said right along that the union will win the arbitration case, since the city admitted it violated the terms of the contract regarding 15 firefighters.

The city established a policy not to bring in firefighters when one or two of their colleagues called in sick, leaving 13 or 14 on duty.

The minimum manning case went through the courts, starting with a decision in the city’s favor when state Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky determined in January 2018 that the city can block arbitration in the contract dispute.

The union appealed and the state Appellate Division, Fourth Department, Rochester, reversed that decision. He believes that decision will cost the city another $200,000.

Earlier this month, Judge McClusky ruled on a split decision in a civil service lawsuit involving out-of-title pay connected to the city demoting eight fire captains four years ago.

Judge McClusky agreed that the city must pay the union in back pay for firefighters who worked in the capacity of a captain when they went on runs for the rescue truck.

But the judge also ruled that the city doesn’t have reimburse captains who worked as battalion chiefs while completing responsibilities as the department’s training officer.

For the first time since Mr. O’Neil came on board, City Attorney Robert J. Slye represented the city in the matter.

Once the minimum manning arbitration case is litigated, Mr. Slye will handle negotiations for a new contract that goes back to July 2016.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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