Ogdensburg, fire officials spar over first responder status

A carved statue of a kneeling firefighter clutching an American flag is seen in front of the Ogdensburg Fire Department building on Ford Street. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

OGDENSBURG — In a blistering letter city fire union members sent to their president earlier this week, they made clear their formal rejection of the city’s most recent contract offer, calling it “unacceptable.”

Jason Bouchard, president of the Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, shared the letter publicly Friday.

“The city has asked the Union forego decades of collective bargaining to save our jobs from elimination, a decision the city leaders themselves have made,” the letter from union members to Mr. Bouchard reads. “The majority of these individuals voted to violate our contract before they ever came to us with one proposal to stop it. They have used the five of us as hostages, in an effort to bust our union, eliminate our manning, and destroy our legally binding contract. The type of negotiation the city manager and city has engaged in is strictly put, improper. The city simply issued a ransom note, as they issued layoff notices, blaming us. Please indicate that we note their efforts and we all voted a steadfast, NO, on the city’s offer. Their goal to destroy our department is undeniable.”

The five union members, who were all officially laid off Friday, signed their names at the bottom of the letter. Those members are Allen Rickett, Daniel Strader, Aaron Charlton, Timothy Stevenson and Jacob Thornton.

City Manager Stephen P. Jellie said Wednesday that he submitted a request to the fire union in order to resolve the city’s ongoing dispute with the union.

Mr. Jellie confirmed Wednesday night that he was trying to avoid a lengthy court battle, as well as “looking at the possibility” of not laying off any firefighters, as the city and union continue to publicly battle over the minimum staffing agreement. The city’s 2021 budget, passed Dec. 9, calls for seven firefighter positions to be eliminated, which would leave 20 positions intact, although the collective bargaining agreement states the city cannot dip below the 24-person minimum.

Mr. Jellie’s Wednesday proposal would have allowed the fire department to retain its current staffing level.

Despite Mr. Jellie’s attempt, Mr. Bouchard confirmed Thursday night that the union denied the offer.

“He knew we were going to deny it,” Mr. Bouchard said of Mr. Jellie’s offer.

In a letter to media later Thursday night, Mr. Jellie said the city is “sincerely disappointed” that a deal could not be reached with the fire union.

Mr. Bouchard said Thursday that the offer extended to the union had 16 bullet points, but he would did not disclose what those bullet points were. In another email Friday, he shared publicly the union’s response to the city’s offer, as well as disclosed further details about what the city was offering in its new contract.

According to Mr. Bouchard, one of the “most egregious” requests in the city’s offer was to lessen the contract duration by 47 months, which would allow the contract to end on Jan. 31, 2022, rather than Dec. 31, 2025. He also said the offer included lowering minimum manning, changing the department’s shift structure, changing the officer structure and changing “numerous” aspects of the city and union’s collectively bargaining contract.

Mr. Bouchard said in Friday’s email that the offer was “so inconsiderate and insulting that the five men who have now been laid off, rejected it immediately.”

The union, in an attempt to level with the city, has maintained three points in which they are willing to compromise on: giving up their EMT stipend for two years; going from two people being “off” at any given time to one, as a way to reduce overtime expenses; and their retirement incentive package.

Mr. Jellie has offered city firefighters willing to retire in order to avoid layoffs a $25,000 incentive, which one firefighter — a fire captain, it was later disclosed — has taken so far. In Mr. Jellie’s Thursday email, he confirmed that two more fire personnel are “contemplating” formal acceptance of the retirement incentive, which could allow an opportunity to reinstate two firefighters who were laid off.

Mr. Bouchard said Wednesday that the fire union member who has accepted the retirement incentive has reached out to the New York State and Local Retirement System and is “prepared to go.” This resulted in the city issuing five layoff notices Wednesday for the men who signed the letter previously mentioned. A sixth layoff notice would have been issued, but that firefighter is out on leave for an unspecified injury.

Mr. Jellie said Thursday that it’s “now clear what is most important” to the fire union — “the very lucrative benefits and perks contained in their contract,” not the fire personnel being laid off.

According to Mr. Jellie, the city’s current contract with the union guarantees raises of 2.5% to 3.5% each year for six years; provides bonus payments for not using sick leave; provides a stipend for maintaining EMT certification — something the union is willing to give up for two years; offers the payment of vacation leave in lieu of use; and demands hazard pay for staffing below six per shift — which Mr. Jellie said will cost the city an average of $131,000 to maintain each position in 2021.

“The residents of the city cannot afford these exorbitant costs one day longer,” Mr. Jellie wrote.

It costs the city about $131,968 per firefighter annually, including salary and benefits, and the average annual salary of a city firefighter is $70,767.

The 2021 proposed fire department budget, according to a copy on the city website, was $2,687,727, and based on the average cost of the firefighters’ salary and benefits, the elimination of seven jobs would save about $923,000.

The city and fire union have been at odds since the budget’s introduction about two months ago.

On Dec. 18, the union filed suit against the city in order to temporarily halt city officials from reducing the size of the fire department staff.

The city is contractually obligated to staff the fire department with a minimum of five firefighters per shift, according to the union’s state Supreme Court petition filed in St. Lawrence County, in alignment with the minimum staffing agreement.

Judge Mary M. Farley on Monday denied the union’s request for a temporary restraining order preventing layoffs while the court case is pending, allowing the city to move forward with the layoffs.

Oral arguments in the case are set to take place virtually beginning at 10:15 a.m. on Jan. 8.

“The City of Ogdensburg remains committed to finding a collective solution to this matter, but the needs of the residents of the city must come first,” Mr. Jellie wrote. “No exceptions. We sincerely hope that President Jason Bouchard and (fire union) Secretary Ronald Bouchard drop their commitment to ‘perks over personnel’ and join the very bold plan to ensure the survival of the city, while working equally as hard to begin the revival of the city, and bring their members back to work.”

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

Assistant Managing Editor

In her role as assistant managing editor at the Watertown Daily Times, Sydney manages the photo department, social media accounts and NNY360.com.

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(2) comments

Eagle24

"It costs the city about $131,968 per firefighter annually, including salary and benefits. The average annual salary of a city firefighter is $70,767." In what world do benefits reflect twice the amount of a worker's salary? !!! What possible perks/benefits would would cost $61201?? If this is a reflection of how the past city leaders managed their costs for the residents it explains why they elected a write in candidate...

DJT

Overtime pay $$$. They are bankrupting the city !! These contracts given out over the last 10 years or more have put the city and villages in peril. SeethroughNY tells it all. 100k plus a year! Cities and villages paying fire and police 100K a year plus benefits. We now have to tighten all of our budget to pay our property tax. Thank you Mayor for being honest and trying in this local swamp.

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