ELYRIA — A fact-finding report submitted as a way of ending the impasse between the city administration and local firefighters’ union was presented to City Council on Tuesday at a special meeting and soundly rejected by Council members, who want talks to push forward.
The two sides have been talking about a new contract for nearly two years. However, with Tuesday’s vote by Council that will not end anytime soon.
The city had seven days to either accept or reject the report with today being the deadline.
“The numbers show how the Fire Department is well ahead of other departments we looked at in comparables,” said Council President
Forrest Bullocks, D-2nd Ward. “With the economy the way it is, we can’t afford pay increases and the increase, even at the 1 percent and 1.5 percent the report recommended, would be a significant increase.”
The vote to reject the report was 9 to 1 with Councilwoman Mary Siwierka, D-at large, being absent from the meeting. Councilman Mark Craig, I-4th Ward, was the only one to vote in favor of accepting the report.
The next step in the process is to let a conciliator settle the contract. However, that move takes the outcome away from the city.
Safety Service Director Chris Eichenlaub said a conciliator will hear the city’s side on an issue, then hear the fire union’s argument and make a decision by picking one side over the other. That decision will make up the final contract.
The fact finder, law professor Alan Miles Ruben, was called in to resolve disagreements in 12 areas including work schedules, hours, clothing allowance, grievance procedures and the duration of the contract. But Council balked at two issues — wages and time off — in Ruben’s report.
The city proposed that both wages and longevity be frozen for the duration of the contract and proposed to eliminate longevity for all employees hired after Jan. 1, 2010. The union proposed a 2 percent increase in July 2011 and a 4 percent increase after 2012 with no change to longevity.
Ruben recommended a general wage increase of 1 percent and 1.5 percent, for 2011 and 2012, respectively. He also recommended longevity payments be delayed for employees hired after July 1, 2011, until the completion of their third year of employment.
Afterwards, longevity pay would be paid on the current schedule of 1 percent of salary per year up to 20 years.
The city also proposed changing paid time firefighters accumulate each year in vacation, sick and holiday time. Mayor Bill Grace said Elyria firefighters accumulate 864 hours a year, more than any other firefighter in comparable cities and significantly more than other 40-hour employees in the city.
“We are arguing these hours of holiday, vacation and sick time should be on par with the rest of our employees not taking into account other peer communities,” Grace said. “We want parity among our 40-hour-a-week employees. The wages weren’t that far off to comparables. It’s the time off. Cuyahoga Falls is the closest with 816 hours.”
However, such a comparison cannot be made to 40-hour employees because Elyria firefighters work 24-hour shifts and 50-hour work weeks, said Dean Marks, union president. That is the reason why contract negotiations look at fire departments in other cities when making comparisons. Even then, the comparables have to be of cities with like size departments and responsibilities, Marks said.
“We have been doing this for two years, talking to lawyers, mediators and a fact finder for two years. We thought this was a good deal,” Marks said. “We have essentially taken zero percent raises for two years and now we will spend more tax dollars on lawyers to negotiate this contract further.”
While the fact-finding report centered on wages and time off, the fire union also sought to bring safety issues into their new contract by recommending the city maintain a water rescue/recovery team and add a minimum staffing requirement to the contract. However, the report rejected both proposals.
“We know it’s management’s right to make certain decisions, but safety has always been our priority,” Marks said. “Right now, the team is up and active, but a lot of the reasons why it is up and running is because a lot of guys have done it on their own time to make sure they keep up with certifications.”
Bullocks said rejecting the report was not just about wages. In about a year, the $3.7 million federal grant the city received to pay the salary of 23 firefighters for two years expires and unless Council can adjust the budget accordingly, most will have to be laid off after June 2012.
“We really want to keep them, but we want to do that without increasing our budget to levels we cannot afford,” Bullocks said. “I would rather see those guys who have been here with the SAFER grant stay then to pay for an increased number of vacation days and time off.”
Prior to receiving the staffing grant, the Elyria Fire Department had 52 firefighters. With the SAFER grant, the Fire Department is holding steady at 75.