City warns of more firefighter layoffs

The Ogdensburg Fire Department on Ford Street in the city. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

OGDENSBURG — The prolonged disagreement over city fire department staffing could lead to a smaller roster than anticipated if an agreement with city leadership isn’t reached soon.

As part of the city’s latest proposal, the city would pursue reducing the fire department from 20 to 16 firefighters — meaning four more layoffs — if the union doesn’t accept the contract offer. Since Jan. 1, the city fire department has been trimmed from 27 to 20 firefighters, and the additional cuts would bring the total staff reduction to 11.

The department is currently operating with 21 firefighters as the fire chief salary is being used to fund the 21st position. But at the end of the month, another firefighter will retire, dropping the department back to 20.

The union doesn’t appear to be interested in City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie’s proposal.

Mr. Jellie said that in an effort to end the months-long legal battle between the city and fire union, he extended the new offer last week to Jason T. Bouchard, president of the Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799. The new offer outlines five updated contract provisions that have been points of contention throughout the dispute.

This new proposal is the third contract offer Mr. Jellie has extended to the union since December. The previous two offers were unanimously rejected by union members as they said they already have a contract in effect through December 2025.

Mr. Jellie proposed the new contract following a recent court ruling handed down by state Supreme Court Judge Mary M. Farley on March 26. The city filed suit against the union earlier this year seeking a permanent stay of arbitration — a form of alternative dispute resolution used as a way to resolve issues out of the court system. Judge Farley granted the city’s request nearly two weeks ago.

In her ruling, Judge Farley agreed with the city that certain sections of the contract the union is seeking to arbitrate are job security provisions, not safety clauses as the union has consistently argued.

Mr. Jellie said Monday that the ruling “ultimately paves the way” for the city to make the “necessary” staffing adjustments he has concluded are needed for the fiscal survival, and ultimate revival, of the city.

On March 29, Nathaniel G. Lambright, the attorney representing the fire union, filed a notice of appeal from Judge Farley’s decision as the union is still seeking to go to arbitration with city leadership over alleged contract violations. The case will now move to the state Appellate Division, Third Department, Albany.

The union’s demand for arbitration was filed with the city on Dec. 28 after its grievance was denied on Christmas Eve. The grievance was filed Dec. 10, one day after City Council passed its 2021 budget that reduced the fire department by seven positions — down to 20 firefighters from 27. The union claimed in its grievance that the city’s staffing reduction violated its collective bargaining agreement.

“These facts are clear — it has a valid, multi-year contract, which city officials refuse to honor,” said Paul W. Larrabee, a spokesperson representing the city fire union. “They are acting illegally and irresponsibly. The notion of renegotiating a contract is nonsensical when the city is violating the law.

“However, following months of disturbing actions and hollow words,” he continued, “we are left without any option other than to question Mr. Jellie’s motivations and sincerity. Ogdensburg’s firefighters have no confidence in his abilities to protect the community, and his tactics are an insult to those who serve it.”

Request for comment from Mr. Bouchard was redirected to Mr. Larrabee.

Mr. Jellie said the union “continues to refuse all reasonable efforts and requests to negotiate a solution, instead opting to defend what they believe to be a legally binding contract.”

The contract offer has garnered more silence from the union, according to Mr. Jellie, and with no response to the offer received, it appears the union is choosing to continue its legal fight. But, Mr. Jellie added, the city will move forward with its plan to reorganize and restructure the city fire department, which includes the potential for further staff reductions.

The first provision states how many firefighters the city department may have. The department is operating with 21 men, one above the maximum.

In the contract offer, Mr. Jellie has asked the union to agree to an overall shift staffing level of 20 — four below the minimum set forth in the union’s six-year contract with city leadership. The contract currently in place states the minimum staffing level of the department cannot dip below 24.

Mr. Jellie has also offered to keep five firefighters on duty per shift for the remainder of the contract, which is another provision outlined in the contract. The department is operating with a minimum of four on duty at any given time.

Without an agreement to save the city money in other areas, Mr. Jellie said, or approval of the SAFER grant, the city will likely reduce the overall strength of the organization to 16 from 20 firefighters with four on duty per shift for the remainder of the contract.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency-sponsored Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant, is a federal firefighting grant created to provide funding directly to fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, frontline firefighters available in their communities.

The second contract provision sets the minimum daily staffing at four firefighters for the remainder of the contract. Without an agreement, Mr. Jellie said, or approval of the SAFER grant, the city may have to reduce the daily staffing of the department to three firefighters per shift for the remainder of the contract.

The third provision sets the shift structure at one captain and four firefighters. Mr. Jellie offered for the three assistant chiefs to keep their rank until retirement, but pay will be capped at the top step of captain or current pay — whichever is higher.

The department currently has three assistant chiefs and one captain. Mr. Jellie said that if the contract offer is agreed to, he would immediately promote another firefighter to the rank of captain. But without an agreement, Mr. Jellie said he has informed Mr. Bouchard that on April 17, two of the three assistant chiefs will be demoted to captain. Assistant Chief Donald McCarthy would keep his rank.

Mr. Jellie said in February that he would demote all assistant chiefs to the rank of captain at the beginning of March, but recently said he never followed through with that plan.

The fourth contract provision calls for the hazard pay section of the contract to be dropped entirely. The union’s contract states that any union member assigned to a shift with fewer than six assigned members will receive an extra $3 an hour. They will receive another $3 an hour for each subsequent reduction to the number of assigned shift members.

The fifth and final provision states there can only be a maximum of one person on scheduled vacation at any given time. Mr. Jellie said vacations currently scheduled can remain for this year.

“The city believe the above represents another generous offer that provides staffing for safe fire operations, reduces personnel expenditures and ends drawn out court appeal process,” Mr. Jellie said.

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(2) comments

Earlybird

How will the Manager and Mayor/Council honor ANY CONTRACT if they won't even honor the existing one? When contracts are negotiated in "good faith", there is give and take on both sides of the table. What will prevent the UCM and Mayor/Council from changing the Police and CSEA union contracts?

Rook03

“Take our deal, or else...”. Seems like good faith from the city

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