Judge rules Mansfield must bring back laid-off firefighters

February 25, 2011

MANSFIELD -- The city has been ordered to restore six laid-off firefighters to their jobs, temporarily.

Richland County Common Pleas Judge James DeWeese issued a preliminary injunction Thursday afternoon requiring the city to return to staff levels set by the union contract, with 88 fire suppression positions -- with 21 firefighters on duty for each shift.

That ruling will remain in effect until an arbitrator decides if the city, in fiscal emergency, can permanently eliminate positions to cut costs.

"We're obviously pleased," said attorney Henry A. Arnett, representing the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 266. "This is a very serious safety issue from the firefighters' standpoint."

The reductions in staff posed "additional risk on firefighters and also a potential hazard for citizens," he said.

Four police officers and six firefighters were laid off in mid-February as part of Mayor Don Culliver's fiscal recovery plan. The city was placed under fiscal emergency Aug. 19, after seven city funds had deficits larger than one-sixth of anticipated revenues. The largest deficit, $4,020,916, occurred in the safety service fund, which helps pay for police and fire.

The fire union notified the city it would take the issue to binding arbitration. The two sides are still working to select an arbitrator through the federal mediation conciliation service.

"(The union) would be willing to work with the city on the issue of the 88 fire suppression positions," Arnett said. "Obviously, that's not something they can snap their fingers and get done immediately."

DeWeese said the most persuasive argument was the union's previous success at fighting efforts to break the contract's minimum manning clause. In September 2009, the union won a binding arbitration ruling that required the city to re-employ 20 laid-off firefighters, issuing back pay and back benefits.

"In this case, given the previous binding arbitration decision for the union on nearly the same issue, the union's likelihood of success in arbitration is so high that the order should issue without (a security bond being posted)," DeWeese wrote. "In addition, the city paid large amounts of back wages and benefits when a preliminary injunction did not issue from this court last time because the union did not post the required bond. It is better for the city to actually get the labor for which they will likely pay when the arbitration decision is issued."

Law Director Dave Remy, who represented the city, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Previously, Remy said the city's main arguments boiled down to drastic changes since 2009 in Mansfield's financial position. Mansfield is the largest city in Ohio to be placed on fiscal emergency status.

Remy argued fiscal emergency placed the city under new restraints.

"In 2009, the city was trying to take a proactive approach to the financial situation so as to stave off a deficit situation," Remy wrote. "Today, the city is faced with a reactive approach that is necessary to eliminate a deficit situation, the massive bulk of which is in the city's safety forces fund."

DeWeese wrote that the strongest factor in the city's favor was the concern of public interest.

However, "the city voluntarily compromised their fire department staffing discretion by signing onto the April 24, 2009, agreement," the judge wrote.

It was "surprising" the city agreed to minimum manning "which effectively prevents layoffs in the fire department and requires overtime work," the ruling said.

On a practical level, the city's need to keep its safety fund balanced while complying with minimum manning "means that the firefighters must be paid at the expense of other parts of the safety forces, like police and 9-1-1 operation," DeWeese wrote. "How much fire protection can the city's taxpayers afford? These are not questions the court is equipped to resolve.

"Collective bargaining agreements are authorized by Ohio law ... A court is not a lawmaker, but a law enforcer. If fiscal emergency status is to override collective bargaining agreements, then the legislative branch of government should enact such a law. This court cannot do that by judicial edict."

Councilman Scott Hazen, 3rd Ward, said he wasn't surprised by the ruling.

"I would have been more surprised if Judge DeWeese didn't rule in favor of the firefighters," he said.

Hazen was among two council members who recently voted against bringing the 2011 budget to a vote after just one reading.

"There is going to have to be other cuts or other shifting of money, in order to balance the budget," he said.

lmartz@gannett.com 419-521-7229