Members of the IAFF Local 1799 in Ogdensburg, NY are now looking at a brighter future for their fire department.
Following three years of intense legal battles with the City of Ogdensburg, the conclusion is favorable for the fire fighters.
The outcome saw an arbitrator granting Local 1799 members a considerable sum of $519,680 in backpay.
Furthermore, it was determined that the city was in breach of contract by mandating a staffing level of fewer than the agreed five fire fighters per shift. The detailed account can be found here.
Ogdensburg, a quaint city situated near the Canadian border, operates with 27 fire fighters from a single fire station.
This entire episode initiated in 2020 when Jeff Skelly, the then newly-elected mayor, and Stephen Jellie, the city manager who also served as fire chief, made a contentious decision.
Due to stated financial reasons, they opted to lay off several fire fighters. This decision, however, was met with resistance.
Local 1799 pursued a preliminary injunction in the state Supreme Court. Unfortunately, it resulted in the layoff of five fire fighters and the subsequent retirement of two more.
Local 1799 did not back down, filing a grievance.
They argued that the layoffs were, in fact, a violation of their contract, emphasizing a minimum staffing requirement of five fire fighters per shift.
On the issue, Local 1799 President Jason Bouchard stated: ““Fire fighters and the public were put in a very dangerous situation as we no longer had enough fire fighters on shift to provide adequate service to the city.
“We often didn’t have enough fire fighters to follow national safety standards for interior attacks and mutual aid is about 20 minutes away.”
The city countered by filing a lawsuit against Local 1799, seeking a halt to the arbitration. While State Supreme Court Judge Mary Farley initially sided with the city, the tides changed in Local 1799’s favor.
Their successful appeal in January 2022 at the state Appellate Division in Albany marked a pivotal moment.
The conclusion came in December, with an arbitrator’s ruling that the city had indeed violated the contract.
This violation pertained to the city’s decision to have fewer than five members on a shift.
As a result, the city was instructed to compensate Local 1799 for the backpay, ushering both parties into payment negotiation.
After prolonged discussions, a resolution emerged in July 2023. The Ogdensburg City Council made the unanimous decision to disburse a lump sum of $519,680 to settle the owed backpay.
Stephen Jellie stepped down from his role in November 2022, with Mohideen Buharie taking over as the current city manager and Kenneth Stull as the acting fire chief.
Ensuring that the fire department is adequately staffed is not only crucial for the safety of the public but also for the fire fighters who risk their lives.
The persistence of IAFF Local 1799 serves as a testament to the importance of standing up for contractual rights and the critical role fire fighters play in communities.