MANSFIELD, OH – The long-standing clause in the city of Mansfield firefighters’ contract that mandates a minimum level of daily staffing has been eliminated, after a conciliator decided in the favor of the city.
Conciliator Margaret Nancy Johnson issued binding rulings Friday on several disputed areas in which the city and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 266 had reached impasse.
Her decisions — against the union on both minimum manning and the union’s proposed $1 per hour increase for firefighters assigned to rescue squad work, but in favor of the IAFF to retain current paid leaves of absence, longevity and paid holiday benefits — go into effect immediately.
Johnson cited fiscal pressures on the city, which has been under state-declared fiscal emergency since August 2010, as a major consideration in her decision.
Minimum manning had been part of the fire contract since 1979. It remained an issue in recent contract negotiations, despite concessions by the IAFF, which agreed in 2011 to voluntarily reduce the minimum manning level from 21 firefighters per day to 18.
Both sides reached impasse in 2013 after the city sought to eliminate minimum staffing requirements altogether, while the IAFF sought to save the requirement.
The union argued that manning constitutes a safety issue. The IAFF also contended passage of the PRIDE levy last November, a 0.25 percent income tax increase with half of all collections earmarked for safety, would ensure the city would have funds to maintain minimum manning.
But city officials told the conciliator minimum manning has caused the city to rack up significant overtime. They argued that national firefighting safety standards provide guidelines that call for at least four firefighters to be present to fight a fire, but don’t mandate that a particular number be assigned to particular stations, or that all four come from the same station or unit.
“The decision by the conciliator to eliminate the long-standing staffing protections is disappointing,” IAFF President Dan Crow said. “The city has offered a troubling plan that jeopardizes the safety of the citizens and the firefighters who will be responding to their calls for service. The contingency plans offered by the city are inadequate by all applicable standards and aren’t necessary considering the city’s finances.”
During a hearing, the city, when pressed to give details on a plan for running the department without minimum staffing provisions, told the conciliator they would maintain a minimum of 12 firefighters per day, Crow said. “Those kinds of cuts would mean closing at least two fire stations. It’s unthinkable that the mayor would present such a drastic plan months after passing an additional levy in which he promised to increase safety staffing,” he said.
In her decision, Johnson said overtime in the fire department helped contribute to past city deficits. While that overtime has been reduced through a federal $1 million SAFER grant that allowed for hiring additional firefighters, the SAFER grant ends in 2015 — after which the city “must have the flexibility to determine and control staffing requirements,” she wrote.
Johnson pointed to firefighter contract agreements in Lima, Euclid, Warren and Elyria as providing for safety concerns “without imposing costly mandates on the city.”
Ruling on a separate but closely related issue, Johnson kept in place contract language that would prohibit the city from counting probationary firefighters toward any minimum manning counts.
Even if elimination of minimum manning is gone, manning counts could come up as a matter of city policy, the ruling said. Since she agreed that only experienced firefighters should satisfy administrative and regulatory standards for fire suppression, “some of the safety concerns of the union have been addressed,” Johnson said. “Additional safety concerns may be raised in subsequent collective bargaining.”
The conciliator said she was not bound by an earlier fact-finding report which has been rejected by the union, but noted that the fact-finder also had proposed eliminating minimum manning.
Crow expressed the union’s disappointment in a statement issued Sunday evening.
“The new contract as a whole is concessionary,” the union president said.
“The firefighters agreed to pay 50 percent of all future increases in health insurance, new promotions take place at a reduced salary and rank structure, concessions on holiday leave, longevity and sick leave will continue. The wage increase of 1 percent comes after five years of pay freezes,” he said.
Crow noted that the conciliation report pointed out that the the city initially projected that the PRIDE tax would generate $25.8 million in 2014 — while the union projects $27.7 million, based on actual collections so far. “The city administration has consistently misled the citizens and the employees alike on the financial state of the city,” the union president said.
Mayor Tim Theaker could not immediately be reached for comment.