Ogdensburg City Manager Stephen P. Jellie needs to do the right thing and bring firefighter Jake Thornton back to work. He recently announced that two laid-off firefighters can return as of Feb. 14, so Jake is now the last remaining firefighter out of a job.
He also needs to do the right thing and apply for a Staffing For Adequate Fire And Emergency Response grant. The application period opened Monday, and the application deadline is Friday, March 12.
I recently retired from the Ogdensburg Fire Department after 32 years of service, and I’m very thankful for the opportunity I had to serve our community. But I’m also deeply concerned that Jake Thornton is still laid off and is being held hostage by the city manager.
This is what he stated to Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters Local 1799’s president Wednesday right after saying that two members will be reinstated: “I need (2) retirements and we can reinstate Thornton. $25,000 is the offer. See what you can get done.”
So the game of “give me what I want” continues. No good faith or real concern for firefighter Thornton and his family, just more coercive games. He’s essentially asking the union president to help him keep staffing under contractual numbers.
The city manager clearly conveyed to the union president that he wanted to use laid-off firefighters as leverage to get a deal on contractual staffing levels. But he seemingly couldn’t justify being at 19 members after being questioned about it, so he brought two back. I am thankful for that.
But why leave just one member out of work? For continued leverage. He’s desperate to get Local 1799 to open its contract and give him what he wants. Union representatives have refused, both because there’s a binding contract in place and there’s absolutely no trust.
But the city manager doesn’t seem to care. He thinks the only way to get a deal now is to have leverage in the form of leaving a member laid off. There’s no way the city goes broke over bringing the most junior firefighter back to work.
Retirements will happen in time (if the plan is to continue disregarding the contract on staffing), and Jake is a valuable, highly trained member of a now depleted department. He has a family to support and he lives in the city, so he gives back economically. What the city needs.
In regards to the SAFER grant, which it appears the city manager has no intention of applying for (?), the following information about the grant is pertinent (received from the International Association of Fire Fighters via email):
Hiring overview — Allows career, combination and volunteer fire departments to improve or restore staffing levels for frontline firefighters for a more effective level of response by providing financial assistance in three categories: Rehiring firefighters who have been laid off within the two years prior to the start of the application period; retaining firefighters facing imminent layoff — within 120 days of the close of the application period; hire new, additional firefighters.
Key hiring changes — Annual salary limits; no prescribed cost-share; grant funds can now be used to rehire laid-off firefighters and retain firefighters facing layoff; extensions to the period of performance are now allowable; no supplanting requirement; no minimum budget requirement.
So why not apply? The answer is clear: the city manager wants to keep recklessly cutting the Fire Department, so he doesn’t want to apply for a grant that helps maintain adequate staffing.
Local 1799’s contract calls for a minimum of 24 firefighters; the city manager only budgeted for 20. The contract calls for a minimum of five on-duty; the city manager cut it to four. The contract calls for four assistant chiefs and four captains (one of each on each shift); the city manager has now left four of those positions vacant and is planning to demote the remaining assistant chiefs.
Applying for the grant is a viable way to honor the contract. If four positions are fully funded, the department can be made whole at no additional cost to the city for at least three years. After that, there are extensions possible. It makes no sense to disregard this option.
To Ogdensburg Fire Department firefighters, please stay safe in the unsafe environment you’re being forced to operate in. To Ogdensburg residents, please understand who is responsible for these unsafe conditions.
The operational changes and cuts made by the city manager are already causing problems, which will only escalate over time. And him now using Jake Thornton as leverage is just wrong. He needs to be brought back to work before he moves on and we lose the possibility of his service.
The writer is a retired Ogdensburg Fire Department assistant chief and former secretary of Ogdensburg Professional Firefighters Local 1799.