Council formally supports firefighter arbitration appeal

James Neiss/photographer In this file photo from September, City of Lockport police and firefighters assist a man in need of medical attention at the corner of Park Avenue and Hawley Street on Friday. The Lockport Common Council on Wednesday adopted a resolution that seeks to ensure the city appeals an arbitrator's ruling that the city must increase the fire department's minimum staffing from six to nine. 

The Common Council adopted a resolution Wednesday that seeks to ensure the city appeals an arbitrator's ruling that the city must increase the fire department's minimum staffing from six to nine — a move that city officials say would require the hiring of 12 new firefighters.

The controversial resolution, passed by a 4-1 vote, puts the council "on record opposing" the decision and would allocate $25,000 to appeal the decision, should Mayor Michelle Roman and city attorney Allen Miskell decide not to appeal.

However, Roman and Miskell announced Sept. 25 they would file an appeal in State Supreme Court to vacate the arbitration ruling.

The resolution passed without backing from either former first responder on the council. Third Ward Alderman Mark S. Devine, a former firefighter and vocal proponent of higher firefighter manning, voted no, while Alderman-At-Large Larry Eggert, a former police chief, was absent.

The vote was bookended by lengthy and at times heated debates over the resolution's language and the estimated cost for complying with Arbitrator Michael S. Lewandowski's decision last month.

Firefighter Kevin Watier criticized two figures included early in the resolution: that the ambulance service operated at a loss of $1.2 million prior to its elimination in 2014, and that the city would have to spend $1.5 million to return ambulance service to the fire department.

Watier pointed out the former figure includes the salaries of the 12 firefighters that the city laid off in 2014. If Lewandowski's decision stands, the city would have to hire 12 new firefighters regardless, and retain another four firefighters whose positions are funded by a grant that will expire next year.

"As this arbitrator's decision shows, our manning is a set number," Watier said. "We're doing ambulance service on top of that. To try to count salaries in the cost of ambulance service is improper; it's the wrong way to look at it."

Watier also argued the cost of restoring ambulance service were inflated.

Finance Director Scott Schrader said restoring ambulance service would require the city to buy ambulances and equip, train and pay mileage to new firefighters — expenses that would "easily" reach $1.5 million. Schrader said previously that the expense would require a more than 10 percent tax hike in 2020.

"Do not be intimidated because of some speakers who want to pervert the information that's in this resolution," Schrader said to the council.

Lewandowski ruled early last month the city violated its contract with the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association when it reduced the department's minimum staffing from nine to six in 2014. The city laid off 12 firefighters and eliminated its ambulance service in order to slash spending during a fiscal crisis.

The union filed a grievance with the Public Employee Relations Board, arguing the city violated its contract when it reduced staffing levels. 

Roman said Sept. 25 she decided to appeal Lewandowski's ruling because of the "extraordinary ramifications" that the decision will have on city taxpayers. 

One week earlier, Roman commended the decision and pledged to negotiate with the firefighters union to lessen the tax impact on residents. She said she changed her mind after discussions with council members, Miskell, the firefighters union and city residents.

Watier said aldermen Joe Oates, Rick Abbott and David Wohleben "made clear there was no agreement with the firefighters that they were going to accept."

"There resolution was to put 12 (firefighters) in the budget, raise taxes 10 percent, point the finger at Michelle Roman and say, 'You forced us to do this by not voting to vacate'" the decision, Watier said.

Wohleben, who sponsored the resolution and who is facing Roman in the election for mayor this year, said in lieu of an appeal, the council had to budget the 12 additional firefighters to ensure they complied with the Lewandowski's ruling.

"The city must restore firefighter (minimum) staffing to nine per shift effective immediately recognizing that such directive is subject to the time it takes to appoint additional firefighters per the civil service process," Lewandowski wrote.

"It wasn't to force the mayor to do anything. ... It was to make sure we met the arbitrator's request in 2020," Wohleben said.

"We have to meet the intent of what the arbitrator ruled on," he said.

Watier and Lockport City Democratic Committee Chair Zachary Parker also criticized the resolution's description of the High Tread International fire as proof "there is no need to add 12 additional full-time firefighters."

Parker pointed out the fire burned from Aug. 10 to Aug. 12, 2016 — over 66 hours — and did cause at least one injury. Joe Philips, 13, died early on in the blaze he and another teenager sparked in an abandoned building on the property.

The fire quickly spread to several other HTI buildings that contained large amounts of shredded rubber.

"If more firefighters arrived when the fire first broke out, the easier it would have been to contain," Parker said. 

City attorney Allen Miskell said the resolution is "moot" because Roman has already directed an appeal and because only the mayor and city attorney have authority to take legal action on the city's behalf.

"You can allocate $25,000; you have the authority to do that. You don't have the authority to spend it," Miskell said.

Miskell also said Lewandowski ruled the city violated its contract with the union and did not make a ruling on the safety of six-person minimum manning. Even so, the resolution twice implies safety was a deciding factor in the arbitration ruling.

"The arbitrator found that the residents and firefighters would be safer with hiring 12 more firemen," the resolution reads.

Miskell has not been especially optimistic about the city's likelihood of winning the case on appeal.

Shortly after the decision, Miskell said the city has "no basis for an appeal."

Then, on Sept. 25, Miskell said the city may have a "limited" basis, and that he changed his mind based on conversations with the city's attorney in the case, Bryan Goldberger.

Still, Miskell clarified: "I'm not in any way, shape or form representing that we will win this appeal."

 

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