Ogdensburg city manager offers new deal to union, says further reductions may be tied to fate of grant
BY JIMMY LAWTON
North Country This Week
OGDENSBURG – Ogdensburg City Manager Stephen Jellie is hopeful the fire union will accept an offer from the city to end an ongoing legal battle that has centered around contract violations.
That’s unlikely as a statement issued by the union in response to the offer said Ogdensburg's firefighters have no confidence in Jellie’s abilities to protect the community, and “his tactics are an insult to those who serve it.”However, even if the union doesn’t accept the terms, Jellie says he is moving forward with the plan for the time being.
“This isn’t new as much as it is me saying here is where I’m at. Here is where I am going and here is what I’m willing to do,” he said.
The proposal would settle a year-long battle between the Ogdensburg fire union and the city, which has reduced the overall number of firefighters from 27 to 21. However, another retirement will take effect at the end of the month reducing the number of employees to 20, which is the number included in the current budget.
Jellie says that number could drop to as low as 16 in the next budget season if the city is not successful in securing a grant to help fund four positions.
Jellie said the city’s decision to pre-empt the county on its share of the sales tax presents many unknowns and it’s uncertain if the city will be ahead, behind or inline with current sales tax receipts under the new system.
In an email sent to Union President Jason Bouchard, Jellie says the city would agree to keep staffing at 20 with five members per shift for the remainder of the existing contract. An early offer from the city would have set minimum staffing at 24, but the union rejected that, Jellie said.
Currently just one former firefighter, Jake Thornton, remains laid off from the department, but Jellie said he was able to offer him a job in the Department of Public Works.
Aside from one termination, the other positions lost at the fire hall were through retirements, though the city did offer retirement incentives ranging from $25,000 to $35,000 to facilitate the downsizing.
Jellie said minimum daily staffing would be four personnel for the remainder of the contract and the shift structure will be one captain and four firefighters on per shift. That edict has already been implemented by Jellie, who also serves as the fire chief, and is one of the chief issues for which the union is seeking arbitration.
Jellie says assistant captains would remain until they retire in lieu of a captain on shift with pay capped at top step of captain or current pay, whichever is higher.
One assistant captain will be assigned to admin and training Monday through Friday and another captain would be promoted immediately if the union agrees to the terms for the remainder of the contract, which is set to expire in 2026.
Jellie’s plan calls for an end to hazarded pay and would allow only one person to be on vacation at a time, though he said current scheduled vacation would be allowed to remain.
Bouchard acknowledged that the offer had been received, but had provided no update as of April 7, according to the city manager.
A demand for arbitration from the union has been moving in the court system for months. Most recently, state Supreme Court Judge Mary Farley granted the city a permanent stay of arbitration on grounds that the issues raised by the union were focused more on job security than safety.
That ruling has is being appealed by the union.
In a March 31 court filing, the union laid out the grounds for the appeal.
“Whether the Supreme Court properly stayed arbitration based on public policy grounds when the Ogdensburg Firefighters grieved a violation of minimum on-duty shift staffing and safety clauses found in a collective bargaining agreement. The clauses do not violate public policy. The parties must be directed to arbitrate the grievance,” the document says.
Bouchard was not immediately available for comment. However, Paul Larrabee, a spokesman for the union, issued the following statement:
“The Ogdensburg Firefighters Association has appealed a recent local court decision, and it looks forward to a review of the facts by the Appellate Court. These facts are clear - it has a valid, multi-year contract, which city officials refuse to honor. They are acting illegally and irresponsibly. The notion of renegotiating a contract is nonsensical when the city is violating the law.”
The statement continued, “Mr. Jellie, an appointed officer of the city, appears to be under an illusion that he has the unique authority to selectively comply with statute, and Ogdensburg’s contractual obligations. There is not a member of our business community that would flout similar commitments; nor would a resident whether they are retired, making ends meet, or attending junior high.”
Larrabee said Jellie has not acted in good faith, and “continues to ignore national safety standards.”
“Further, his dictatorial threat of layoffs to those who have responded to thousands of calls for help redefines arrogance, and his disrespect for the community at large is a disgrace. There is no negotiating with a City Manager or a majority of the City Council when they do not honor contracts. We are exploring additional legal actions should the city carry out this threat, which in reality eviscerates and ignores the fundamental elements of the six-year contract negotiated and endorsed by the firefighters and city officials.”