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City asks judge to overturn SERB decision

Youngstown wants to remove 3 battalion fire chief positions

YOUNGSTOWN — The city is asking a judge to overturn a State Employment Relations Board ruling prohibiting it from eliminating three battalion fire chief positions.

SERB ruled the city violated the firefighters union’s collective bargaining rights when it decided to eliminate the positions through attrition.

Youngstown is appealing the decision to Mahoning County Common Pleas Judge Maureen Sweeney, asking her to stop SERB from requiring it to cancel its plans to get rid of the three jobs.

SERB’s decision “is not supported by reliable, probative and substantial evidence and is not in accordance with law,” according to the “motion for stay” filed by Jeffrey Moliterno, the city’s senior assistant law director.

The SERB board voted 3-0 June 11 in favor of the union, upholding an April 17 decision from James R. Sprague, a SERB administrative law judge.

The union contends, and SERB agreed, that the city improperly retaliated after agreeing to provide upgrades to the fire department’s radio equipment — and then decided to save the money from that expense by reducing battalion chiefs through attrition from six to three. Only one position has been eliminated to date.

SERB ordered the city to cancel the reduction and promote a fire captain, Chad Manchester, to battalion chief with back pay to replace Gary Ditulio, who retired Dec. 3, 2019. It isn’t known when two other battalion chiefs would retire.

In his filing on behalf of the city, Moliterno wrote: “The order is itself unenforceable and oversteps SERB’s legal authority in fashioning a remedy. The reason this order is unenforceable is because of the separation of powers and responsibilities within local government and because the order itself fails to order a remedy that is possible to enact.”

‘DISAPPOINTED’

Asked about the city’s appeal, Charlie Smith, the union’s president, said: “I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed. The union is constantly going back and forth with this administration, and we were hoping that after this long process we’d have some closure and settlement on at least one of the issues between the two groups. This ruling in particular was not only unnecessary from the beginning, but it was long and draining for the firefighters.”

He added: “The process to get to this ruling went through a lot of people, meaning it was not decided on a whim or in any subjective way. Therefore, it’s really disappointing that this administration doesn’t seem to ever take responsibility for their actions or fight to do what is safest for the people we serve as firefighters. Although we are exhausted (with) the constant back-and-forth with the city for a number of reasons, we will never stop fighting for what we believe is right or for what will keep people safe. If that means continuing this case, so be it.”

The city has had one setback after another in its attempts to eliminate the positions.

Common Pleas Judge John M. Durkin ruled June 9 that the city was in contempt of court for not filling the vacancy. It still hasn’t filled it to date.

Durkin’s decision supported a March 27 ruling from Magistrate Dominic J. DeLaurentis Jr. in favor of SERB, which filed a lawsuit against the city to stop the reduction in battalion chiefs while the board heard the union’s objections.

The union says the city committed an unfair labor practice by eliminating the three jobs in retaliation after agreeing to provide upgrades to the department’s radio system. The union has complained about problems with the radio system for two years before the city agreed in December 2019 to pay for improvements.

The union and SERB say eliminating the battalion chiefs is a safety issue as the second battalion chief at a fire serves as the safety officer.

The upgraded radio system will cost about $275,000 and be installed some time next year. Each battalion chief reduction would save about $130,000 annually.

MANY DISPUTES

The two sides have had numerous disputes over the past few years.

Most recently, the administration closed fire stations earlier this month on a rotating basis because the fire department had already exceeded its yearly overtime budget in the first five months.

The stations are closed when the department is short-staffed, but the union has objected saying it’s dangerous and the city has failed to fill positions causing the overtime issue.

The city closed stations on a rotating basis for about three months in 2018 because of overtime costs.

Other issues include the union issuing a no-confidence vote against fire Chief Barry Finley in December 2019 after expressing concerns about his leadership, and the city closing Fire Station No. 7 on the North Side that month over the objections of the union.

dskolnick@tribtoday.com

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