MIDDLETOWN, Ohio – A union representing a Butler County fire department rejected a proposal from the city to save 11 firefighter positions.
On Friday, members of the International Association of Firefighters Local 336 voted 44-25 to reject the plan, appearing to put an end to a months-long effort by the two sides to reach an agreement.
If passed, the "Memorandum of Understanding" would have saved the positions and eventually four future firefighter jobs that are now being eliminated from the Middletown Division of Fire's budget.
That will drop the city from 76 to 65 full-time professional firefighters. Middletown doesn’t employ part-time or have volunteer fire crew members.
“Middletown Firefighters didn’t like many of the features drawn up by the city that left thousands of residents without safe and adequate Fire and EMS protection and thereby couldn’t adopt the city’s plan,” according to a release from union representative Greg Justice.
He said throughout the whole negotiating process it seemed the city had a “hard time identifying” its goals and effectively communicating them. In addition, he said, it appeared Middletown leaders had a “lack of awareness of what the citizens truly wanted.”
“It is unfortunate both parties couldn’t effectively collaborate to mitigate their competing concerns. The firefighters did reach deep with concessions the city was looking for, however it never seemed as though the city had similar concerns regarding citizen’s safety as held by the firefighters.”
The need for a new labor deal came about after Middletown drafted a cash-saving budget in November 2013. Part of the push to balance the budget called for cutting the jobs of 11 firefighters and four other positions would be eliminated through attrition.
Local 336 information officer Chris Klug said it costs the city about $100,000 per firefighter for an entire year.
At an Aug. 19 Middletown City Council meeting, City Manager Doug Adkins said the city and the fire union had reached a tentative agreement on a two-year deal that would have saved all 15 positions, according to the Journal-News.
The union was scheduled to vote on the proposal later that week, but the 74 members never voted, Justice said. Then earlier this month, the city extended the deadline for an agreement from Aug. 16 to Saturday in hopes the union would accept the city’s offer, Adkins said.
But the firefighters were informed by email that the layoffs would go into effect at 7 p.m. Saturday. All of them had fewer than seven years of experience.
Justice said the city's decision to cut positions, and close Fire Station 84 due to , was to the firefighters' "bewilderment."
He also said the “the firefighters do have a long-term plan to reduce cost but never really had a chance to present it." He didn’t provide details on what that alternative plan would entail, however.
Why did the union allow 11 of their coworkers to lose their jobs instead of agreeing to the deal?
Justice wrote that the firefighters felt agreeing to the city’s plan as-is would be “misleading” to residents of Middletown who recently agreed to a adopt a public safety levy.
“The firefighters felt the manner in which the recent public safety levy was championed to the community: As residents were advised their Fire and EMS services protection would stay the same with the adoption of the levy, would now be misleading to the citizens,” he wrote. “As the new tentative agreement calls for significant increases in response times and gave concern for the availability of Middletown Firefighters to even respond at all.”
The letter from Justice also indicates that firefighters were told by Middletown’s law director, Les Landen, and Fire Chief Steve Botts that whether they adopted the city’s recent proposal or not, staffing levels would remain at 13 firefighters, instead of the previous total of 16.
“That level of staffing is insufficient to provide safe adequate Fire and EMS services to a community as large and diverse as Middletown,” Justice claims. “Furthermore, this reduced staffing level is also contrary to the recommendations of the National Fire Protection Standards governing adequate staffing for the incident scene.”
But Adkins has said in the past that the city prepared for the layoffs by making a change to “first emergency first” (FEF) to “better operate under the reduced staffing level.”
Under the FEF, each fire house will be equipped with a medic unit and a fire truck, and the firefighters would take whatever piece of equipment was needed for the specific emergency calls.
Through the agreement, the city would have been allowed to hire full- and part-time firefighters without “blowing up” the budget, maintain current service levels and to begin building additional flexibility and capacity for the future, Adkins said.
Adkins told Journal-News reporter Rick McCrabb there are 26 full-time firefighters, those who work 51-hour weeks, who are eligible for retirement over the next five years.
When those positions open, Adkins said, “cheaper” firefighters would have been hired, which would have saved the city money and allowed it to concentrate on other areas, such as paving roads.
Justice said those firefighters will be less experienced than those on staff.
When contacted Saturday night by the Journal-News, Adkins said he couldn’t comment because the union hadn’t told him it had rejected the plan.