NY FF union, city reach tentative agreement, opening door to minimum staffing changes

The city of Watertown seeks to change the requirement that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times


Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The city has a better chance to finally move forward with changing the requirement that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times now that it has a tentative agreement with the firefighters union, City Attorney Robert J. Slye said Monday night.

The City Council on Monday night unanimously approved the four-year tentative agreement with the firefighters, despite a fiery speech by Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith about why the union doesn’t deserve it.

Before voting for the new contract, Mayor Smith said firefighters don’t care about city finances because 80 percent of them live outside of the city.

The city is going through a financial crisis from the coronavirus that resulted in employee layoffs and pay cuts, but they didn’t affect the fire department because of minimum manning — the requirement that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times — he said.

“It has to stop,” he said.

When they go back to the bargaining table, the city and the Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191 will grapple with that main sticking point that stalled the contract dispute for the past six years.

The two sides have agreed to meet to discuss minimum manning within 60 days if a new contract is ratified.

“It puts the negotiating team in the best position moving forward,” Mr. Slye said after the vote.

The four-year tentative agreement, which covers 2016 through June 30 of this year, gives firefighters 2.5 percent raises for each year of the new contract. They must receive the retroactive pay for the past four years within 60 days after the accord has been ratified.

Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero and Councilman Ryan Henry-Wilkinson thanked their colleague, Jesse Roshia, for joining the negotiating team and helping bring back a fair agreement.

“It’s something both sides can live with,” she said before the vote.

The new contract includes several changes in health benefits. Under the agreement, firefighters will pay 14.5 percent for their premiums; pay more for prescription co-pays, from $10/$30/$40 to $10/$35/$60 for 30-day retail; deductibles would increase $200/$600 to $250/$750;and medical co-pays to $20/30.

After the meeting, union President Daniel Daugherty criticized Mayor Smith’s comments by quoting Winston Churchill.

“In coming to this compromise, I’m reminded of Winston Churchill who said ‘meet success like a gentleman, disaster like a man.’”

Calling the new contract “fair for both sides,” Mr. Daugherty went on to say that “the compromise puts the past four years to rest,” thanking the negotiating teams for both sides and the mediator from preventing further arbitration.

Mr. Slye will soon meet with Nathaniel Lambright, the union’s attorney, to put together a document including what’s in the new contract and “interest arbitration,” an agreement from last year for years 2014-15 and 2015-16 that gave firefighters 1.5 percent pay increases.

It will take a little while to get that “homework” done and finalize the tentative agreement, Mr. Slye said.

It took six years to get to this point.

Legal arguments over arbitration regarding the minimum manning issue made it all the way to the state’s highest court, with the union winning. Minimum manning and its related issues also meandered through several other court proceedings throughout the years.

The two sides avoided further arbitration on Nov. 23, ending their contentious legal battles.

Over the years, the city paid about $900,000 in legal bills to fight the minimum manning issue, citing that it could not afford the costs and it should determine the Fire Department’s staffing levels.

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©2020 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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