WATERTOWN — The city is taking steps to take an arbitration case against the city’s firefighters’ union to the state’s highest court.
In a unanimous decision on July 7, the state Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in Rochester, denied the city’s request for a permanent stay from arbitration involving an issue with eight demoted captains. The Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191 won its case in its entirety at the Appellate Division level.
Union President Daniel Daugherty said last week the city plans to appeal the lower court’s decision and take it to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
“In our opinion, it’s delaying justice,” he said.
Mr. Daugherty said he learned of the city’s intentions from an affidavit received from an associate of Terry O’Neil, the Long Island lawyer representing the city in the three-year contract dispute with the firefighters’ union.
But the city must petition the Court of Appeals and convince the seven-judge panel to take the case because the lower court’s decision was unanimous, he said. The Court of Appeals judges also must decide “if it’s worth their time,” Mr. Daugherty said.
The city’s attorneys also must show that the arbitration case “is a novel issue with statewide importance,” he said.
The city’s law firm, Bond, Schoeneck & King, will argue that the Appellate Division has been divided on similar arbitration cases when they were argued in other parts of the state.
The 70-member firefighters’ union has been without a contract since July 2014. The contract talks became increasingly bitter after eight captains were demoted to firefighters last July. The eight lost about 20 percent of their annual salaries when they were demoted, while the city made the change to save about $100,000 a year.
Describing the strategy as “an option they’re exploring,” Councilman Mark C. Walczyk said the law firm would pick up the bill for the legal fees associated with taking it to the higher court.
“The taxpayers of Watertown would not pay for it,” he said.
Councilman Cody J. Horbacz reiterated that he wished the contract dispute could be resolved.
“I’m tired of going to court,” he said.
If the state’s highest court decides against hearing the case, the arbitration case is expected to move forward this fall. If that doesn’t happen, it will probably take a year to resolve the issue.
But Mr. Daugherty said he believes the bargaining unit will win again, noting that Mr. O’Neil’s law firm lost a similar case in June before the Appellate Court, Second Department, regarding the village of Garden City, Nassau County, and its firefighters union.
The village argued to issue a stay on an arbitration case against Professional Firefighters Association of Nassau County, Local 1588, about the way firefighters go on fire calls. That arbitration case can now move forward.
The legal wrangling over the contract is far from finished. The main sticking point over a new contract remains the issue involving the “minimum manning” stipulation that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times. The city contends that the stipulation causes the department to be overstaffed, while the union maintains that changing it would be unsafe.
The state Public Employees Relations Board must rule on the minimum manning issue before the two sides can agree on a new contract. Several other PERB cases also are pending.
Nathaniel Lambright of the Syracuse law firm of Blitman & King represents the firefighters’ union.
The city also is negotiating contracts with two other bargaining units: Civil Service Employees Association Local 823 and the Watertown Police Benevolent Association.
The CSEA bargaining unit recently decided against voting on a new contract because the city is refusing to reimburse Plan B medical benefits, according to an email that went out to its membership on June 27. Those talks may go to mediation.
Negotiations with the PBA also are not going smoothly, officials said. The PBA’s membership is not happy with the way talks are going.
Council members Walczyk and Horbacz declined to comment about the status of the other negotiations.
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