COLUMBIANA COUNTY Settlement allows for deputy layoffs
The judge made the plaintiffs post a $10,000 bond in case they lose.
LISBON -- An out-of-court settlement reached Wednesday between Columbiana County Sheriff David Smith and the Fraternal Order of Police will allow delayed layoffs to take effect midnight Sunday, costing five deputies their jobs.
In the meantime, the deputies are free to appeal their layoffs to an independent arbitrator.
"Our action was to try to keep the things status quo until we go to an arbitrator under the collective bargaining process," said Michael Piotrowski, a lawyer for the police union. "We have already begun the process of selecting an arbitrator."
Smith announced the layoffs last month after the Columbiana County commissioners cut his budget for salaries by 20 percent -- $270,000 less than last year's amount.
The Fraternal Order of Police challenged the action, arguing it violated the deputies' collective bargaining pact, and Columbiana County Common Pleas Judge C. Ashley Pike issued a temporary restraining order preventing the layoffs from taking effect.
But common pleas Judge Joseph Bruzzese, a visiting jurist from Jefferson County who took over the case when Pike recused himself, lifted that order at the request of both sides. The judge had informed the plaintiffs that in order to continue with the case, they would have to post a bond to reimburse the sheriff's department if they lost.
The case was one of two Judge Bruzzese is presiding over in Judge Pike's place. The other case revolves around the county commissioners' attempt to cut off health insurance for the four members of the board of elections. That hearing was postponed until May 17; the judge told board members they would have to post a $10,000 bond -- roughly equal to the cost of providing health coverage until the end of May -- to reimburse county government should they lose.
County commissioners maintain that health insurance is an unjustified perk for part-time board members in tough financial times.
In the case involving the sheriff, both sides will agree on an arbitrator to determine whether Smith has the authority to lay off the deputies. That decision will be binding, and although either side could appeal the decision to court, lawyers for both sides said Wednesday such appeals are rare.
Piotrowski said he hopes to get a ruling from an arbitrator within 90 days. He said the commissioners cut too severely, using overly pessimistic tax revenue projections.
"We believe the money is available to pay deputies," he said. "The sheriff has been placed between a rock and a hard place by the commissioners and the collective bargaining process."
But Eugene P. Nevada, an attorney who represents the sheriff, said he had no choice and expressed confidence an arbitrator will agree.
"We don't have a magic wand. And we don't have a pot of money hidden someplace," he said.
Smith said the layoffs, which will reduce his road patrol from 17 deputies 12, will have a large impact. He said his officers will continue to respond to emergency and some nonemergency calls. He said people involved in certain types of nonemergency situations, however, will have to either go to the Sheriff's Department in person or report it by telephone.
Smith said he will rehire the deputies whenever the commissioners provide him with enough money to do so.
Should the deputies win before an arbitrator, they would return to their jobs with back pay. But it remains unclear how they would enforce the ruling.
Piotrowski said the county commissioners could be forced to provide extra funds since they are parties to the collective bargaining agreement with the deputies. But Nevada said the union has unsuccessfully made similar claims in Perry and Jackson counties.
"The FOP has tried that argument and they lost twice," he said.
Commissions Chairman Jim Hoppel remained firm Wednesday.
"We've appropriated their money. We're going to stand on that," he said.