OGDENSBURG — The ongoing dispute between the city and its fire union resulted in the elimination of four assistant fire chief positions this week, but a new development Wednesday revealed two laid-off firefighters will be reinstated to their posts next week.
In an effort to restructure the fire department, City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie informed the union Tuesday night that the three remaining assistant fire chiefs will no longer hold that title. They won’t be losing their jobs, but they will now drop down to the rank of captain. The restructure will take effect March 1.
Mr. Jellie said Wednesday that this is just the next phase in the city’s reorganization of the fire department. But Jason T. Bouchard, president of Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters, Local 1799, said Wednesday night that the shift restructure goes against the union’s collective bargaining agreement.
“The union would prefer (city leadership) honor the shift structure laid out in the contract,” Mr. Bouchard said.
The union’s current contract with the city states that the shift structure at all times should consist of one assistant chief, one captain and four firefighters. With the restructure, there will be four captain positions and the rest will be conventional firefighters, and it’s expected that each shift will be staffed with just five men — one captain and four firefighters.
The original structure of the fire department’s leadership called for four assistant chief positions and four captain positions, but the department is currently operating with three assistant chiefs and one captain. With the restructure, the three assistant chiefs will be dropped to the rank of captain to fill the three vacant captain positions.
The reason there are three vacant leadership positions is because of recent retirements.
When the city passed its 2021 budget Dec. 9 of last year, fire department staffing was reduced from 27 positions to 20, which violated the union’s minimum staffing agreement that states the department cannot have fewer than 24 firefighters. In order to curb the issuance of seven layoff notices, Mr. Jellie offered a $25,000 retirement incentive to eligible firefighters. The offer expired New Year’s Eve.
One fire captain — Capt. Gerald H. Mack — took the incentive, and another firefighter, at the time, was out on leave for an unspecified injury. This resulted in five layoff notices being issued instead of seven. Those layoffs took effect Jan. 1.
Since the layoffs last month, three more firefighters have opted to take the retirement incentive. Two of those firefighters held the rank of captain, and the third was Assistant Fire Chief Ronald Bouchard, who is Jason Bouchard’s uncle and who also served as the union’s secretary.
As a result of the recent retirements, Mr. Jellie notified union leadership Wednesday that two more firefighters would be reinstated to their positions, effective Feb. 14.
The fire department is currently operating with 19 men — one fewer than was agreed upon in the city’s 2021 budget. Ronald Bouchard retired, effective Jan. 31, and another firefighter, Jared Wells, was fired last week for misconduct. It was previously stated that Ronald Bouchard retired in order to pave the way for a laid-off firefighter to be brought back to work, but that didn’t happen immediately.
Mr. Jellie previously said he would not bring another laid-off firefighter back to work to restore the department to 20 firefighters because he implemented a hiring freeze on all city departments, including bringing back laid-off personnel, “until further notice.”
The freeze was imposed because of the city’s deteriorating financial situation — the city currently owes St. Lawrence County about $825,000 in delinquent tax payments. Mr. Jellie also cited the uncertainty surrounding the status of state aid in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 2021 budget. Mr. Jellie said last week this is “cause for concern.” The city’s hiring freeze still remains in place.
With the reinstatement of two firefighters, the department would grow to 21 — one more than was agreed upon in the city’s budget.
It’s unclear what this means for the department as Mr. Jellie has said he has no intention of growing the fire department beyond 20 positions. It’s possible that a firefighter could be named acting chief in place of Mr. Jellie, as the chief position is not a union position, but that remains unclear.
Mr. Jellie said he had no comment about the reinstatement of two firefighters when contacted Wednesday night.
Mr. Jellie also said he had not received a response from union leadership about the department’s restructure as of Wednesday.
“We are ready, willing and able to negotiate with the union,” he said, “(but) we are not holding up our plans waiting for the union to come to the table.”
Jason Bouchard said Wednesday the decision to eliminate the assistant chief positions was premature.
“We need to make sure there are people who are qualified if this is the route (Mr. Jellie) chooses to go,” he said of the fire department restructure.
None of the firefighters in question will be getting a pay cut, but their salaries will be frozen at the amount they make now as assistant chiefs until the captain-level pay exceeds that amount.
According to Mr. Jellie, a top-step assistant fire chief makes about $86,000 and a top-step captain makes about $82,000.
The city and fire union have been at odds for more than two months over the city’s violation of the union’s minimum staffing agreement, which was done when officials imposed the elimination of seven fire positions. The positions were eliminated when City Council passed its 2021 budget last year.
The union filed suit against the city in state Supreme Court in St. Lawrence County at the end of last year because of the staffing cuts. The union was requesting a preliminary injunction to forestall the five layoffs. But state Supreme Court Judge Mary M. Farley quickly denied the request.
When oral arguments for the case were heard about two weeks later, the union was requesting the reinstatement of the five laid-off firefighters. The city prevailed when Judge Farley issued another swift denial of the union’s request to reinstate personnel.
The city quickly filed suit against the union requesting a permanent stay of arbitration. The union had filed a grievance with the city over the layoffs, which has pushed the case toward the path of arbitration — an alternative form of dispute resolution used to resolve issues outside the court system.
That case is still pending in state Supreme Court.