OGDENSBURG — A lawsuit filed by city firefighters won’t stop city officials from cutting fire department staff on Jan. 1, after a state Supreme Court judge Monday denied the fire union’s attempt to temporarily halt the layoffs.
On Dec. 18, the firefighters’ union filed suit in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County requesting a preliminary injunction be granted until after an arbitrator can assess the situation — including the elimination of seven department positions as stated in the city’s budget, which was passed by City Council on Dec. 9.
The department job cuts have been a hot-button issue for the union and specifically Jason Bouchard, president of the local Ogdensburg firefighters’ union, since the budget’s introduction about two months ago.
“While there is no denying that the consequences of some decisions will be personally impacting, it is most important that the entire community recognize these decisions are absolutely necessary,” City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie said in an email statement Monday afternoon. “The City of Ogdensburg is at a significant financial crossroads and we must continue to take very decisive actions to save the city while working equally as hard to revive the city.”
Judge Mary M. Farley’s denial allows the city to move forward with eliminating the seven positions if the city and the union are unable to come to an agreement before Jan. 1.
Oral arguments are scheduled to take place virtually on Jan. 8, as the case remains pending in state Supreme Court.
“Even if the injunction is denied (after the Jan. 8 hearing), the city’s actions still violate the (minimum staffing) contract and will be challenged through traditional arbitration,” Mr. Bouchard said in a text message Monday afternoon. “If the city elects to abolish positions, it will not only violate our (collective bargaining agreement) but put the public at significantly greater risk.”
The firefighters were extended an offer from Mr. Jellie nearly a week before the budget’s passing — any firefighter who wishes to retire would be incentivized to do so with a $20,000 buyout.
On Christmas Eve, Mr. Jellie upped that offer to $25,000 as an “offering of good faith and reconciliation.”
In November 2019, the union signed onto a collective bargaining agreement with the city which states the city must maintain between 28 and 24 firefighter positions at all times. Going below the 24-position threshold because of budgetary reductions would be in direct violation of the agreement, the union said in its 17-page petition filed just over a week ago. The agreement went into effect Jan. 1 of this year, and is set to expire Dec. 31, 2025.
According to the petition, when and if the number of firefighters drops below 24, the city must fill the vacancy as soon as is practical from a Civil Service eligibility list. This language, the petition said, forbids the city from laying off employees below the 24-person minimum because they would immediately be placed on a Civil Service preferred list and eligible for rehire.
Right now, the city has a total of 27 firefighters, but factoring in the job cuts, 20 firefighters would remain, dipping below the 24-person minimum.
The city is contractually obligated to staff the fire department with a minimum of five firefighters per shift, according to the petition, in alignment with the minimum staffing agreement.
In an answer filed just days after the petition, the city said that in order to obtain an injunction in aid of arbitration, the fire union would need to show that it will “likely succeed” at arbitration, which the city said the union cannot do. The court sided with the city on this matter Monday.
“City of Ogdensburg leadership continues to call on President Jason Bouchard and Secretary Ronald Bouchard to work collectively with the city and end the back and forth, unproductive discussions that have ensued for the past several weeks,” Mr. Jellie said in his statement.