By Sue Botos
Several Westshore firefighters gathered in the shadow of the 9/11 memorial outside Lakewood Fire Station No. 1 last week for a press conference, urging voters to turn down Issue 2. Public employees are concerned that passage of the measure would mean the end of union collective bargaining and place the staffing of safety forces in the hands of city officials.
Speaking for the group were the presidents of three local firefighters’ unions: Kevin Bednarski (Rocky River), Dave Boatman (North Olmsted) and Dave Dargay (Lakewood).
In a prepared statement, Bednarski said that collective bargaining has had little effect on the Rocky River budget. He recalled a 1984 suit the city filed against the State Employment Relations Board contending that collective bargaining infringed upon its home rule rights. During arbitration hearings with firefighters, Bednarski said the city had a general fund balance of $278,000 and a predicted deficit of $66,000 by 1986.
Since 1984, Bednarski reported, the city has built and operated a senior center, phase one of its civic center, a new outdoor pool and a city garden, all with general fund dollars.
“Still, by 2008, after 24 years of collective bargaining, the city’s general fund balance was $5.8 million. After three years plus of this recession, the fund balance as of Aug. 31 stood at $3.6 million, nearly 13 times the 1984 balance,” he stated. Bednarski noted that all this was done without an increase in income or property taxes.
Bednarski further pointed out additional responsibilities taken on by firefighters over the years with the addition of other services, such as paramedic, HAZMAT and dive teams. He added that concessions have been made on the part of both union and nonunion city employees, who deferred pay raises last year.
Boatman echoed Bednarski’s information by “examining some of the sacrifices the North Olmsted firefighters have made.”
Some of the compromises mentioned by Boatman included taking unpaid days off and reduction of benefits.
“These concessions directly amounted to an approximate 12-percent reduction in wages. The city utilized these wages to not only retain jobs, but has since utilized these employee concessions to create new jobs. These concessions were achieved through our collective bargaining rights to have a third party,” he stated.
The concern over a city’s ability to set the number of safety force members was addressed by Dargay, assistant chief of the Lakewood Fire Department.
“I’m here to mention some of the things collective bargaining has done for us and done for the community,” he remarked, recalling the “shared sacrifices” made by city employees during the last year, which included no pay increases, more out-of pocket expense for medical premiums and the payment of 10 percent toward pensions.
“We’ve lost some staffing. We’re currently down six firefighters. We may not replace the next three that retire, and we’re still maintaining our level of service,” Dargay reported.
“The safety of the community is important to us. That’s why we have staffing in our collective bargaining agreements, which SB 5, Issue 2, would eliminate,” Dargay continued, adding, “We’re not here to get rich. We’re here to serve the public.”
Fielding questions from reporters, the firefighters agreed that while they do respect the other side’s opinion, supporters of the measure have yet to detail the “tools” to deal with the economy they say are contained in the bill.
Asked why someone who has never had union support in his or her job should vote no on Issue 2, the firefighters again brought up the issue of safety – their own, as well as the public’s.
“The unions are concerned about our members. We have each other’s backs and we want to be safe in our job,” stated Bednarski, adding that by assuring the safety of firefighters, the safety of the community is assured.
Boatman added, “We respect that position (non-union), but we desire the ability to provide adequate staffing levels.” He added that some communities have asked firefighters to pay for their own equipment or use outdated gear.
“Our lives depend on our gear,” he added.
All of the firefighters agreed the current state administration, not collective bargaining, was to blame for their cities’ economic hardships. “Unions are giving back money trying to help the city and the state’s taking it away. Collective bargaining is not the problem for mayors, councils and unions. It is a problem for the state legislature,” remarked Bednarski.