Fire union threatens legal action against city of St. Joseph

If you live in St. Joseph, there's a new agency keeping you safe. Starting Sunday, the city launched its Department of Public Safety. Like Benton Harbor, which recently introduced a similar program, St. Joe’s police and fire agencies now fall under the same umbrella. The only problem, eight of the city's nine firefighters aren't “hot” on the idea.

In preparation for the shift, St. Joseph City manager Frank Walsh says IAFF Local 1670 unanimously ratified a new three-year contract on March, 29 of this year. However in mid-June, Alison Paton, the union’s Detroit-based attorney, threatened the city with legal action if it didn’t adopt a “Letter of Agreement” as a last minute addition to the contract.

"This is very similar to buying a new car. On March 28 the union went out and bought it, paid for it, everyone was in agreement, the dealership was happy, they were happy. Then they come back 90 days later and say, 'wait a second we want to return this car for a full refund and the reason is because we don't like the color” Walsh said.

Walsh says the contract under debate was built in effort to cut emergency management costs, while saving every firefighter’s job.

“We were spending nearly $4 million on the police and fire departments, but we were only bringing in $5 million in property tax. Almost 80 cents in every dollar was going towards our police and fire departments,” Walsh added.

The late March contractual agreement, which included raises, food allowances and lifelong employment guarantees, was an achievement Walsh made note of in his daily planner. He says it’s a mystery as to why the union has backed out of the plan, but reiterates his negotiating door remains open.

"I’m hoping that something will happen that stops well short of a circuit court battle. We don't need that and our taxpayers don't need to be paying for that, but we'll do what we need to do to protect that,” Walsh said firmly.

In Monday’s Herald Palladium opinion section, former fire union president James Crow said:

"By the firefighters backing out of this agreement, they show total disregard of bargaining in good faith. I am personally disappointed in and upset with the way the union has handled this since my resignation as president. As the newly promoted deputy director of the fire division, this entire episode is a black eye on the union."

According to the city of St. Joseph, the newly implemented Public Safety Department will save the city $2,060 per day. Once its dispatch center moves to the Berrien County’s 911 complex on Oct. 1, the city is slated to save more than $750,000 a year combined. “Strictly a financial cut” Walsh reminds his citizens, “one that won’t limit public safety or staffing.”

"We went to all the extremes to maintain their employment and that includes all the generous benefits we provide; sick time, food allowance, vacation, lifetime pension, lifetime retiree healthcare. So we went to great lengths to protect the firefighters so I don't know what their motivation would be,” Walsh concluded.

While gathering the facts for this story, NewsCenter 16 contacted IAFF Local 1670 interim president Randy Schrubba and union attorney Alison Paton. Schrubba nor Paton however returned our phone calls for comment.

To view the pending fire contract,plus IAFF Local 1670's requested “Letter of Agreement”, just click on the document tab above this story.

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