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City, firefighters’ union set to go to arbitration

Is it higher salaries, a larger staff, better health care insurance benefits? The public isn’t being told what the hold-up is for the Bureau of Fire and its union, International Association of Firefighters Local 736, which haven’t renewed its contract.

The contract expired at the end of last year. Attempts to reach a union official have been unsuccessful. Nobody at the fire headquarters on Walnut Street was available to speak about the impasse.

The city administration says it can’t reach mutually-acceptable terms with the city fire department union and has scheduled an arbitration hearing for late next month.

Negotiations since the expiration of the contract at the end of 2019 have not resulted in a contract renewal, said Joseph Pawlak, city interim finance director, at City Council’s finance committee meeting.

The stumbling block between the city and fire union surprised and puzzled Councilwoman Bonnie Katz, chairwoman of council’s public safety committee.

“I thought we had a better understanding with the fire union,” she said.

“What is the sticking point and can we talk about it?” she asked.

The city is trying to meet the terms of and asking the union to agree but, instead, Mayor Derek Slaughter said during this time that the city labor counsel has recommended an expert, Vijay Kapoor, a former councilman from Asheville, North Carolina, who has a company that is skilled in providing municipalities economic analytics for union negotiations in light of the scheduled arbitration.

Besides helping the city to gather exhibits for the hearing, Kapoor has prior experience as a city councilman and can provide an economic analysis for the city as it prepares for other negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 29 and other unions, particularly in these “uncertain financial times,” Slaughter said.

Kapoor is expected to attend the council meeting tonight on remote. He has agreed the city’s payment for his economic analysis is not to exceed $16,500, Slaughter said.

The money to have the company perform the services can be taken from the legislative contingency line item, Pawlak said.

Because it is a matter of negotiations, the mayor said he preferred it not to be discussed in public because the city and union are not able to reach mutual terms.

City fire officials were asked for a comment Wednesday from the Sun-Gazette and nobody at the fire station on Walnut Street was able to speak on the subject.

Slaughter said the plan is for the arbiter to be brought in for the hearing in late August. Kapoor also will be considered “valuable in providing the arbiter with information requests from the union and items negotiated in the past and those that will impact the city’s future,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter said what Kapoor is likely to produce for the city will be a “living, breathing document.”

It will help by providing the administration and council with an economic impact analysis, Slaughter said.

Kapoor is well respected and used in arbitration and can help the city to know where it will be in November and December, Slaughter said.

“Beyond arbitration,” the company can be utilized for city business, Slaughter said.

So far, the city has spent $17,000 for the legal services on negotiation with unions through May, Pawlak said.

In order to get through to the August hearing, Pawlak asked for the budget to be increased by 25 percent, or $50,000 for legal/negotiation purposes.

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