City warns of more firefighter layoffs

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

OGDENSBURG — The city has extended another contract offer to its fire union in order to bring back the last remaining laid-off firefighter. But union leadership say they aren’t interested as they already have an existing contract with the city through 2025.

In an email Friday afternoon, City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie informed Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, President Jason T. Bouchard that the city wanted to “have a discussion about how we could work collectively” to reinstate Jacob E. Thornton, the last remaining laid-off city firefighter.

The city is asking the union to abolish the shift staffing hazard pay clause of its existing contract and replace it with a daily staffing hazard pay clause that would pay the same amount of money if daily staffing dips below four. The current 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. Union members currently collect hazard pay on a regular basis because the department is staffed with four or five firefighters per shift rather than six, according to Mr. Jellie.

If the union agrees to replace this contract provision, Mr. Thornton would return to duty May 15.

Mr. Jellie gave Mr. Bouchard five days to respond.

“Mr. Jellie makes offers that Ogdensburg’s fire fighters have determined to be hollow — and not offered in good faith,” Mr. Bouchard said in an email statement Friday. “He has repeatedly acted illegally with respect to an existing multi-year contract, and has declined to honor or respect the city’s commitments. As such, we have no interest or appetite to enter into an unnecessary discussion.”

The city and its fire union have been at odds over alleged contract violations for roughly six months — since the City Council passed its 2021 budget on Dec. 9. The budget called for, among other things, the elimination of seven firefighter positions — dropping the department from 27 firefighters to 20, which is four below the contractual minimum of 24.

Five layoff notices were issued shortly after the budget was passed as one fire captain had opted for retirement and another was out on leave. Mr. Thornton was one of the five given a layoff notice.

Four firefighters who were laid off Jan. 1 have been brought back to work at the city fire department as more eligible firefighters have opted for retirement. In March, the city upped its retirement incentive for eligible members from $25,000 to $35,000, but that deal was only valid through March 31.

The city had been operating with 21 firefighters — one above what the council agreed to in the 2021 budget — for a short period of time as Mr. Jellie was using the money allocated for the fire chief’s salary to fund the 21st firefighter position. But another firefighter retired at the end of April, dropping the department back to 20.

The union and citizens have called on Mr. Jellie and the City Council to reinstate Mr. Thornton using the fire chief’s salary numerous times. Mr. Jellie said he doesn’t intend to do that as that would mean he would serve as fire chief for the foreseeable future. He has said he hopes to hire a fire chief sometime soon. Mr. Jellie has also said that even though he’s the fire chief, he doesn’t collect the chief’s salary.

In an email dated April 20 that Mr. Jellie shared with the Times, Mr. Bouchard said the union shares the desire to bring Mr. Thornton back to work. But, Mr. Jellie added, “Local 1799 refuses every invitation to meet and discuss a solution, consistently citing, ‘We have a contract, there is no need to meet.’”

In the same email, Mr. Bouchard said, “We hope you consider bringing Firefighter Thornton back where he belongs.”

“For its part,” Mr. Jellie said in response to Mr. Bouchard, “the city is absolutely considering it, and we offered a solution but Local 1799 remains silent thus far, other than authorizing their downstate public relations firm to issue a media statement describing the city’s sincere offer as hollow.

Mr. Jellie said that if Mr. Bouchard wants Mr. Thornton back to work, “it is time he step up, show up and lead the collective negotiation to do it, otherwise perhaps it’s time he admit the reinstatement of Firefighter Jake Thornton is not really a priority and that the topic only serves as a rhetoric line for his surrogates to use in the continued baseless attacks on city leadership and pleas for public sympathy when using words like ‘hostage’ to make their case.”

Mr. Jellie said he extended the new contract offer to the union because for the past three weeks, the city has “attempted to engage” the union with the intent of settling their unresolved differences and reach a “collective agreement” to reinstate Mr. Thornton.

“IAFF Local 1799 will not respond,” Mr. Jellie said in an email Friday, “yet they continue to claim the city is at fault.”

The union and city have been battling it out in court since last year as well.

The union filed suit against the city in December seeking to reinstate the laid-off firefighters, but was quickly shot down. The city then filed suit against the union seeking a permanent stay of arbitration — a form of alternative dispute resolution used as a way to resolve issues outside the court system.

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.

In March, Judge Mary M. Farley ruled in favor of the city and granted its request, but the union filed an appeal with the state Appellate Division, Third Department, Albany, as they still wish to go to arbitration with city leadership. The case remains pending.

“Sadly,” Mr. Jellie said Saturday, “Local 1799 has decided that challenging Judge Farley’s decisions in an Albany-based appellate court is more efficient than rolling up their sleeves and getting to work locally to solve this matter.”

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

Recommended for you

(1) comment

Earlybird

The Unqualified City Manager and his 4 Council backers are the ones who are breaking the law and a binding contract. Then they act like victim because the FD Union won't discuss to solve the issues. They hold a trained firefighter hostage until they get their way. They just don't get it that they created trust issues with their actions, NO ONE TRUSTS YOU for breaking contracts, laws and your lies. All City Employees walk on egg shells trying to avoid the harassment of the UCM and his 4 backers. NO ONE TRUSTS THEIR WORD on anything because if you don't do what they want you are done and then they create lies to backup their reason for no longer needing you or because you won't work with them.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.