County appeals summary judgement

-A A +A
By Carol A. Clark

Los Alamos County has appealed a summary judgment issued July 18 concerning a contract the county has with firefighters volunteering for Paramedic School.

The judgment rendered by Judge Daniel Sanchez in First District Judicial Court said the county had “disregarded its own local ordinance in addition to state and federal law.”

The court’s decision concerns a contract the county has with firefighters volunteering for Paramedic School – a decade old program supported and encouraged by the county.

“The county will pursue an appeal of that decision,” County Attorney Mary McInerny said. “The court’s interpretation of the law resulted in two firefighters being relieved of their contract obligation to repay the cost of their purely voluntary and specialized training.”

At issue, McInerny said in a news release, are contracts entered into between the County and individual firefighters wherein the County pays a selected firefighter’s tuition, travel, per diem and other expenses, as well as their full salary, for as much as one year while they attend the specialized school.

“Successful completion of Paramedic School and paramedic certification enhances the LAFD’s ability to provide a highly skilled paramedic staff,” she said. “In Los Alamos County, having this type of certification enables firefighters to receive higher wages since it is the highest EMS-rated license.”

In return, she said the county contracted with the firefighters to complete two years of service with the county after completing training and EMS licensure before taking a job elsewhere.

Fourteen firefighters have taken advantage of this specialized training opportunity and have successfully completed the school, she said, adding that only two of those firefighters have failed to fulfill the obligation set forth in the contract.

Attempts to reach union officials for comment were unsuccessful.

McInerny said that since July 18 the county has been considering its options for an appeal while awaiting a scheduled court date for the second count involved in the lawsuit regarding “unjust enrichment,”

“After reviewing the options, we have decided to dismiss the second count – not because we are no longer interested in restitution, but rather because taking this course of action will allow us to move forward quickly with an appeal on the first count,” she said.

“We firmly believe the court erred in its July decision. The court’s decision calls into question the process both parties agreed to use in negotiating the Collective Bargaining Agreement.”

The county has a local ordinance which mirrors the state Public Employees Bargaining Act (PEBA) language regarding contract negotiation and collective bargaining, McInerny said.

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement has been in place since Jan. 1, 2006, and will expire March 31, 2009.

The county reaffirms its compliance with all laws, ordinances and agreements related to those matters, she said.

McInerny emphasized that the recent interpretation by the court about the law has far-reaching implications beyond the county.

“At this point, we feel this is a matter of interest not only to our taxpayers, but for communities across New Mexico with similar collective bargaining agreements,” she said. “We anticipate that the county and the firefighters’ union will be entering into collective bargaining negotiations shortly for a Follow-on Agreement."

The court’s comments imply that local governments are no longer able to negotiate contracts with firefighters for optional schooling with any confidence that they will be upheld in court, she said.

“It’s a timely issue for us to address, and this is precedent-setting for public employers beyond Los Alamos,” McInerny said. “We plan to pursue our position aggressively with the Court of Appeals and file our appeal as quickly as possible.”