MONROE, NJ – Fire District 1 in this township has been ordered to rehire firefighters who were fired several years ago in an apparent retaliatory move by the district’s elected Board of Fire Commissioners.
An appellate court panel last Tuesday upheld the state Public Employment Relations Commission’s ruling against the fire district, which PERC said “acted with hostility” and “anti-union animus.”
The district is one of three in this township, each with taxing authority and boards of commissioners elected in annual elections every February.
In 1999, this fire district hired three paid full-time firefighters to augment its volunteer force. In 2008, the board replaced one of the vacancies with a per-diem firefighter — a move that caused friction with the paid firefighters’ union, which wanted the district to fill the full-time position.
The board fired its two full time and two per diem firefighters in 2010 saying it wanted to save taxpayers money.
But a hearing officer said tax savings was a “pretext” and that the decision was retaliation against International Association of Firefighters Local 3170 for criticizing the board.
The hearing officer said the board’s alleged tax-savings reason didn’t make sense in light of the fact that the board turned around and sought to contract with Fire District 3 to provide weekday fire services for roughly the same amount. The board also spent $90,000 on radios, $70,000 on a vehicle for the fire chief and $140,000 on a new brush truck.
Moreover, the board made its decision to fire the firefighters before the public could cast their votes on the annual budget. The spending plan, including $210,000 to pay the salaries of the two career and two per-diems, earned voter approval. Residents also attended an earlier board meeting to voice support for the paid firefighters.
Another clue that the board wasn’t facing “hard economic times” was a surplus of $1.4 million in the bank, not to mention the fact that fire district’s tax rate, already the lowest in the township, had declined even with the firefighters on the payroll, PERC said.
The hearing officer and PERC accepted testimony that board Chairman Charles DiPierro had intimated threats against the union. For example, in 2008 DiPierro said that if the union president and attorney “keep pushing issues with the hiring of the third man, the Board is thinking of pushing the union out of the station up to the other end of town.”
DiPierro told a firefighter that the union was “putting up a wall,” adding that “this is not good for your future here… you know that your contract is up Dec. 31, and that might be it,” and, “This is the beginning of the end.”
DiPierro could not be reached for comment Monday.
The appellate panel said the board failed to prove that it would have fired the firefighters even if they had not been involved in union activity. The decision, the panel added, does not mean that the board would not be able to fire the firefighters with cause in the future.