Norco firefighters are asking for a temporary restraining order that would prevent the city from dissolving its Fire Department and contracting with the county for fire services. The request is part of a civil lawsuit filed in Riverside County Superior Court on Sept. 6 alleging the city violated labor laws and good faith negotiations when it failed to increase retirement benefits for firefighters at the Norco City Fire Department or negotiate with them before looking to the county for services.
The city denies the allegations.
Norco is in the process of dismantling its in-house fire department to contract with Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department for fire and emergency medical services, a move expected to save the cash-strapped city $1.4 million.
The labor group that filed the lawsuit, the Norco Firefighters Association, represents 23 firefighters who claim the city reneged on a 2007 binding contract to increase benefits this year. The change would have boosted benefits for those who retire at age 50 to receive 3 percent of their highest salary for every year worked, compared to the current 2 percent, costing the city an additional $282,000 next fiscal year and more than $5 million over the next 20 years.
Instead, the city imposed a 22 percent cut in salaries and $1 million in budget reductions, saying it had reached an impasse during negotiations and union offers did not reflect a true savings.
Union representatives had wanted to continue negotiating but said the city refused to continue talking, would not discuss intentions to close the Fire Department or explain why it violated the retirement contract.
“They didn't talk about it. They just decided not to live up to that promise,” said union attorney Bill N. Woodson III. “At one point, they said 'We'll give you 3 percent at 50 but you pay for it.' That's not exactly good faith.”
The lawsuit is asking for an unspecified amount in damages.
Norco City Attorney John Harper had not yet seen the lawsuit but denied that the city negotiated in bad faith. He said the increase in benefits were contingent on the two parties reaching a new contract this year, which was not accomplished.
“The presumption was there would be a subsequent memorandum of understanding and they would continue to be employees,” Harper said of the Norco firefighters.
He said the two parties were simply too far apart at the bargaining table.