OGDENSBURG — The Ogdensburg firefighters’ union has filed suit in order to stop the city from reducing the size of the fire department.
The suit, filed Friday in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County, calls into question the city’s 2021 budget, which eliminates seven positions within the fire department. The budget, which also cuts city taxes by 10%, was passed by City Council on Dec. 9, but has been a hot-button issue for the union and specifically Jason Bouchard, president of the local Ogdensburg firefighters’ union, since the budget’s introduction nearly two months ago.
“Exactly 12 months ago today, a faithfully negotiated and reasonable contract was agreed to with City officials which included a reduction in the total minimum number of firefighters,” a prepared statement issued Tuesday night from Paul Larrabee on behalf of the union reads. “However, in recent months, a chaotic series of events by the City Council and its City Manager have brought uncertainty to our community while every resident and business is seeking stability during a most challenging time.”
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 says in its 17-page petition. 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 says, 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 align with the minimum staffing agreement.
“Of course, the City could not comply with the minimum shift staffing requirements even if it tried to with just 20 bargaining unit members,” the petition says.
The union is seeking a preliminary injunction of the layoffs until after an arbitrator can assess the situation.
In an answer filed Monday, the city says 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 says the union cannot do.
In citing reason to persuade the court to grant the preliminary injunction, the firefighters’ union, in its petition, identified five categories of “significant and irreparable harm” resulting from the city’s 2021 budget: “it is inherently unsafe to respond to a fire and enter a burning building with less than five firefighters; bargaining unit members have not been trained to operate with less than five members on duty; the ‘Staffing Change’ significantly increases work load, jeopardizing the health and safety of bargaining unit members; the ‘Staffing Change’ impedes safe response to simultaneous alarms; and the ‘Staffing Change’ during the COVID pandemic will not allow enough members to backfill in the event an entire shift is infected.”
In a second objection made in Monday’s answer, the city says there is no irreparable harm proven.
Referencing the union’s claim that the safety of firefighters would be put in jeopardy by eliminating the positions, the city says the affected firemen “will be made whole by the award of money damages in the event that they prevail.”
“While one can sincerely empathize with the difficulty that these ... firefighters will face because of a layoff or the abolishment of their positions, it should be noted that there are several hundred local residents, including City tax payers, who have been laid off or terminated from employment due to COVID-19.
“... there is nothing unique about job losses,” the answer continues. “Further, it does not seem fair that the loss of ... well-paying firefighting jobs — with generous health and other fringe benefits — should be deemed more tragic than the job losses in the lower paying private sector which are being experienced by residents of the City.”
The answer also goes on to object that the balancing of the equities do not favor the imposition of an injunction, and that the injunctive relief would require an “undertaking.”
In the event the court is inclined to grant a stay over the city’s objections, the answer reads, New York Consolidated Laws, Civil Practice Law and Rules, requires the petitioners post a “substantial undertaking” — continue to pay the firefighters.
“The City, which is already financially challenged, should not be compelled to continue paying these firefighters unless it is first made whole or otherwise secured,” the answer reads. “While a stay of the abolitions pending arbitration is inappropriate and not warranted by this record, the City will be harmed if it is required to keep these firefighters on the payroll while the arbitration is heard.”