Muskegon Firefighters Dispute Heats Up As Staffing Issues Go Unresolved

MUSKEGON, MI — The ideological divide between Muskegon’s firefighters and city leaders has deepened in recent months, transforming a fight over budget cuts into fraught relations and infighting over concerns for public safety.

In June 2017, the city slashed nearly $700,000 from the department’s budget, citing rising pension costs, uncontrolled overtime and what City Manager Frank Peterson called sick and leave time “abuse.”

At the time, Muskegon’s firefighters’ union said the cuts would be devastating, but agreed to work it out through collective bargaining. Those discussions have all but stalled as unresolved resentments fester ahead of contract negotiations set to take place later this year.

“I think it would be accurate to say that things are not on the mend,” Peterson said. “Rather than working with city administration to improve safety, it appears their goal is to create unrest within the community in an effort to force an increase to the membership’s pay and benefits through the payment of overtime.”

Meanwhile, the war of words is intensifying, with public attacks and finger-pointing in news reports and on social media, fueled by instances of historically low staffing and diverging views on how to best run the department.

On Monday morning, Peterson reiterated his decision to keep the fire department staffed at nine on duty – two less than what was typical in 2016-17 – and that if that number falls to just six, it is the “result of actions taken directly by the members of the Muskegon Professional Firefighters Union.”

He also plans to address the issue of staffing at Tuesday’s City Commission meeting.

Union President Chris Drake is calling for citizens to show up en masse on Tuesday to support firefighters during public comment, adding that the city has the means and money to prevent staffing from falling short.

Both camps believe the fire department can do more to control costs and run efficiently, but disagree on how to get there.

A battle of budgets

In May 2017, city administrators finalized their 2018 budgets. The proposed budget was set to approved by the Muskegon City Commission in June.

Peterson said he noticed that the fire department budget was ballooning, mostly due to rising pension costs for retirees. He also described out-of-control overtime and benefits “abuse,” two areas that were driving up personnel costs.

The 2016 budget was $4.48 million. Increases in pension costs would push the budget to $4.78 million this year if changes weren’t made, Peterson said in June. The city paid 7,056 hours of overtime in 2015-16, he said, adding that firefighters hired before 2014 receive 576 hours per year of vacation, personal and sick time.

Peterson said the city had to pay overtime to maintain staff minimums, which were reduced from nine on-duty to eight and sometimes seven on-duty in late 2016. Peterson said at least 42 shifts in 2015 would have fallen below eight on-duty because of unplanned sick and personal leave time if the city had not approved overtime.

Peterson eyed a nearly $700,000 budget reduction in 2018 – most of which came from firefighter salaries and benefits – bringing the department down to an estimated $3.31 million.

Instant backlash

The backlash began almost immediately. Peterson and then-union President Pete Hughes each blamed the other side for not meeting sooner to talk about needed changes.

Retired Assistant Fire Chief Ken Chudy said the cuts have “exposed the failure of city leadership to prepare for the future.”

Drake later called the “abuse” a mischaracterization of how firefighters accrue and use earned time.

“For us it’s a 24-hour shift, for everyone else it’s an eight-hour shift,” Drake said. “So, of course, it looks different if you’re looking at it from a 40-hour week point-of-view. But we work a 53-, 54-hour work week. It’s really apples and oranges when comparing shifts.

“That’s where the numbers might seem alarming at first, but that’s our schedule. And it’s a schedule that works.”

Peterson disagrees and believes running professional firefighters on 24-shifts is a big part of the problem. He has suggested switching to three, overlapping 12-hour shifts to better accommodate staff levels.

Vice Mayor Eric Hood said in June that both sides would need to come together to make necessary savings without costing any firefighters their jobs. By the end of the meeting, Hughes agreed.

“This is a process and we will work through that process,” Hughes said.” I’ve got a lot of good ideas and we’ll get ready to put those good ideas to work.”

Attempts to negotiate fail

That wouldn’t be so easy, Drake said. The city had previously engaged the union starting in March 2016 to hash out staff levels and benefit use without cuts. The union refused each time.

“We are not bargaining,” Drake said. “We have a binding contract signed in good faith that we didn’t need to go to arbitration for, and we’re sticking to that until the end. We asked that they do the same.”

Peterson lowered staff minimums, starting each shift with at least 10 to 11 on-duty and three slots available for earned leave and sick time – a decision he said resulted from union obstinacy.

Drake said having less than eight on duty was categorically dangerous, for firefighters, business owners and the residents they serve. A more adequate number is 14 on duty to attack a working structure fire, as prescribed by National Fire Protection Association guidelines.

But Peterson said catastrophic structure fires in the city are often few and far between, and that it can rely on its partners within the county to help them with mutual aid, should Muskegon firefighters need backup.

“Everyone does that in the county,” Peterson said. “We have layers in place and our county is a cooperating team. We also respond to theirs. It’s always worked that way.”

Starting in July, the city approved less overtime hours while rescheduling vacation days to meet staff needs. In some rare cases, mandatory overtime was forced on two firefighters to maintain staffing, according to multiple union grievances filed by Hughes between July and October 2017.

Peterson said staff levels remained low as firefighters continued to abuse benefit time, with some firefighters consistently calling in sick.

Often, Public Safety Director Jeff Lewis added, the prime offenders were firefighters who were either set to retire or found other work anticipating layoffs.

“Every day, we’re looking at staffing and trying to evaluate what we need as far as staffing and knowing what time off is sitting in front of me,” Lewis said. “It’s the unforeseen circumstances that are really bringing us down.”

Staff levels drop to six on duty

The thaw in relations between city hall and the union began to freeze. Finally, on Oct. 21, the staff minimum dropped to six on-duty.

Peterson said two firefighters were off on paid and earned leave. Another was out sick because he was recovering from surgery after suffering an injury. Lewis and fire Capt. Gordon Cole first became aware of the conflict on Oct. 12, according to emails provided by Peterson.

Cole said if they start with 10, paid and sick time will leave them with just seven on-duty. Lewis’ response was stern.

“Gordy, we’ve addressed this several times,” Lewis wrote. “We schedule 10-11 each day – we are only in this situation because of excessive benefit time off as it relates to staffing. (Eight) is a number I’d prefer to staff our shifts. Follow the contract … you can work seven if you feel you can provide to the public.

“That’s your decision … but any time we go below eight, for now, I want to be notified as to why.”

All members of the fire department, including command officers and the fire marshal, belong to the union.

On Oct. 21, an unforeseen sick-out from another firefighter put staff levels at six. Lewis emailed Peterson, who was out of state at a conference, to let him know and that they wouldn’t be approving overtime.

For Drake, Lewis’ logic is less than sound.

“It is up to Lewis to determine what to do,” Drake said. “We don’t have that authority in our contract. Essentially, what (I believe) he’s doing is trying to force one of our union members to make that decision, so if there’s a public outcry, ‘it wasn’t me, that was the union that did that.’

“We don’t like being put in that position.”

Peterson countered by saying that’s “got to be up to them.”

“They may not have the final say on overtime, but they are responsible for what happens,” he said. “I don’t know who else we would ask.”

According to the current contract:

“The Union recognizes the City is vested with all management functions including the full and exclusive control, direction, and supervision of operations in the work force and that it shall manage its affairs in all respects in accordance with its responsibilities and the powers and authority which the city has not officially abridged, delegated or modified.”

A structure fire leads to unrest

At approximately 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 21, fire crews fought a blaze at a house on Seventh Street. All six firefighters responded, including a shift commander who typically hangs back to oversee a scene, Drake said.

Instead, the shift commander was on the fire attack line, leaving the six-man crew without a command position. They called in mutual from Muskegon Heights, bringing a total of 10 to the scene.

The incident was filmed live on Facebook by Greg Roberts, a former Muskegon firefighter. The video ends with Roberts calling on all citizens to attend future City Commission meetings and to speak out during public comment.

Several firefighters and their advocates spoke at the Oct. 24 meeting. Peterson said he initiated contact with Drake to hash things out as soon as he returned.

“He was informed that I wanted to meet, but he wanted to talk to the other union guys before we could get a handle on things,” Peterson said. “That was the last I’ve heard from him, and we don’t have a date set up yet. And they’ve said that under no uncertain terms are they opening up their contract for negotiation.

“If we can’t cut costs in any other way, in a department that’s 98 percent personnel costs … it kind of leaves us with one option, and that is to manage manpower. You can’t stop washing the fire trucks every day and save a million dollars.”

Aftermath

Since that day in October, the fire department has been routinely running with eight and sometimes six on-duty, Drake said.

Peterson said things have been running smoothly despite staff issues, a credit he lends to Lewis’ management. He also defended his administration by pointing out that in total, the department ran with six on-duty for 19 days out of 365 in 2017. During those 19 days, at least 69 out of 180 shifts were missed by firefighters, causing the approval of 250 hours of overtime to keep staffing levels above six firefighters.

On Facebook and in news interviews, Drake and his union have been ramping up a campaign to show the dangers firefighters face. They’ve also called out Peterson and Lewis on multiple occasions – their latest barb calls Lewis’ experience as a public safety director into question.

“To have it come to this … I’m tired of the back and forth,” Drake said. “But you can’t deny that some of my guys are going to be sore at the city manager and the public safety director when they see the things they’re saying to the public, or when our people are treated a certain way.”

Peterson has done multiple interviews, as well.

“The union isn’t giving the full story,” Peterson said. “We recognize that there are going to be hiccups along the way, and we recognize the issue. But there’s been a couple of people who have been very vocal about this, and one of them hasn’t been willing to talk.

“We don’t feel like we’ve acted inappropriately.”

From MLive.com