December 21, 2014

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North Ridgeville, firefighters at impasse over contract

NORTH RIDGEVILLE — The city’s firefighters knew their requests for a 15 percent pay hike this year and subsequent salary raises of 5 percent in 2014 and 2015 would raise some eyebrows.

But that was the point, according to Korey Stearns, president of Local 2129 of the International Association of Firefighters, which represents 34 of the city’s fire personnel.

“Those raises would have totaled 25 percent over three years, but we were making the point there have been no pay raises since 2009,” Stearns said.

Unionized firefighters and the city are at odds over a proposed three-year contract that saw a factfinder side with the city over proposed wage hikes among other issues.

City Council voted to accept the report of factfinder Thomas J. Nowel, a veteran Cleveland arbitrator-mediator. Firefighters rejected the report last month by a 25-2 vote.

The contract dispute is now set for conciliation.

The firefighters’ negotiating team is now seeking pay hikes of 4 percent this year and 2 percent for 2014, according to Stearns.

The city has countered with a 4 percent raise over two years. That is the same proposal that was accepted by the city’s Police Department, where a three-year pact included 2 percent pay hikes in 2012 and 2013.

The city’s offer also includes an option for firefighters to reopen talks on wages in 2014, which is the same feature offered to police, according to Mayor David Gillock.

The union recently met with Gillock, Safety-Service Director Jeffry Armbruster and Law Director Andy Crites in hopes of reaching a settlement, but the session produced no real results, according to Stearns.

“We thought it would be easy to sign off on several issues and save everyone some time, but the city did not want to talk with us,” Stearns said.

At the end of the session, Gillock said he told Stearns to again meet with the union “and then give us the best offer you can and we’ll look at it, but we never heard from them.”

“We just assumed they felt there wasn’t a lot of room left for negotiation and just decided to go to conciliation,” Gillock said.

Stearns said earlier in the week that “the mayor said the city was 95 percent guaranteed the factfinder’s report would hold up in conciliation, but we are 95 percent assured it will be changed.”

Firefighters have been working without a contract since December 2012 when the last agreement expired.

Of 24 Northeast Ohio fire departments, firefighters in North Ridgeville earned the lowest annual pay — $57,261 — for those with three to five years experience as firefighters-paramedics, according to 2012 figures Stearns provided from the State Employment Relations Board.

By comparison, Avon firefighters earn $65,722 while those in North Olmsted and Westlake make $63,800 and $70,379, respectively, according to numbers from the board, which set average yearly pay among the 24 departments at $67,607.

By remaining among the lower-paid departments in the region, the city runs the risk of not attracting the best-qualified firefighters who will go elsewhere to find better-paying employment, Stearns said.

“We have to be competitive in order to get quality people,” Stearns said.

No date has yet been set for conciliation sessions to begin.

The last time the city and its firefighters took a contract dispute to conciliation was in the early 1990s, Stearns said.

Nowel sided with the city on wage hikes and a request to up firefighters’ share of insurance costs from 10 to 12.5 percent, but agreed with the union to continue scheduling vacation time by seniority instead of by rank.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or sfogarty@chroniclet.com.