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Firefighters union takes county to court

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By Carol A. Clark

The culmination of failed negotiations combined with the county’s recent rejection of a third party fact finder’s ruling has led the firefighters’ union to file a lawsuit.

President Flavio Martinez of the Los Alamos Firefighters’ Association Local #3279 said Monday that the union filed the lawsuit in First District Court in Los Alamos Oct. 18.

“It comes down to good-faith bargaining – that’s the whole issue here and we feel the county isn’t following the New Mexico Public Employee Bargaining Act (PEBA)…it seems the county has a motive every time they come to the table,” Martinez said. “The county council imposed a contract, we didn’t believe in it and we didn’t sign it – so we don’t believe we have a contract in place right now. The county believes it is right and we believe we are right – so we’re going to let a third party decide.”

County Council Chair Mike Wismer said during a previous interview that after reviewing the fact finder’s report, “the majority of the councilors felt it was not based on any analysis.”

Councilor Vincent Chiravalle rendered the sole vote in support of the fact finder’s report.
“I appreciate how much effort the union put into negotiating with the county for a year and a half,” Chiravalle said. “The fact finder ultimately ruled in their favor and I respect the fact finder’s report and I think we should have accepted that ruling, but the county didn’t do that, we imposed our own contract on the firefighters and I don’t think it was fair to do that and I feel badly about that. I think the council chair was wrong when he stated in a Monitor story in September that the fact finder’s ruling wasn’t based on analysis, I think it was based on very sound analysis and I think we should have accepted the fact finder’s ruling.”

Primarily, the county and the union disagree regarding pay, benefits and remaining competitive with other fire departments.

On July 21, Fact Finder Bruce Ponder issued his determination saying, “Based on my findings…I find the union’s offer to be the more reasonable.”

Attorney Barry Paisner represented the union both during its contract negotiations and in filing the current legal action. Paisner had asked the county for an 8 percent wage increase for the firefighters.

Fire Chief Doug Tucker said in an earlier interview that 8 percent was not financially feasible.
“You can’t rob Peter to pay Paul – it’s not allowed,” Tucker said.

On Aug. 18, the county council rejected the fact finder’s recommendations and awarded a 5-percent raise for firefighters below the rank of battalion chief.

“This is the second time in eight years that an independent fact finder has ruled against the County of Los Alamos,” Martinez said at the time.

Martinez was referring to negotiations in December 2003 in which the union alleged that the county entered into a collective bargaining agreement that created illegal impasse procedures. An arbitrator found in favor of the union on that issue as well.

In early September, the county presented the union with a “unilateral collective bargaining agreement with the illegally implemented 5 percent raise,” according to the lawsuit.

Union Vice President Paul Grano said the union tried to work with the county through the negotiation process to no avail.

“We were unable to work with the county so we had to go this route,” Grano said. “Hopefully whatever happens, we can have fairer negotiations in the future.”

County Attorney Randy Autio said the county has received the complaint.

“We have it and we’re analyzing the claims and preparing what our defense will be,” Autio said. “Other than that, it’s too early to comment further and as a general matter, we don’t comment on pending litigation because it may inappropriately affect the matters that are pending before the court.”
 

Union vs. county on the key issues:

• The union asserts the specialized skill level warrants a higher pay raise
• The county’s last offer in 2009 of a one-year agreement with a one-time 3 percent pay raise across the board would not create a comparable level of compensation to similar entities
• The county’s offer lacks any increase in benefits to bring it in line with Albuquerque and Santa Fe fire departments
• The county’s offer keeps a paramedics training reimbursement contract that was obtained through direct dealings with bargaining unit employees, which was declared a prohibited practice under state law
• The union’s last offer calls for equalizing the pay for driver engineers and level II firefighters.
• The unions’ offer also takes steps to improve the disparity in benefits between LAFD and comparable communities, changing incentive pay to be more in line with Albuquerque.

The full document filed to initiate the lawsuit can be read as a file attachment to this online report.

 

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10.18.10_Complaint.pdf293.91 KB

Council Chair Wismer states

Council Chair Wismer states that "the majority of the councilors felt it was not based on any analysis" regarding the Fact-Finders Report. The Fact-Finder was mutually chosen by the county and the union. Why then would the county go through the Fact-Finding process with the assumption that the report would not be based on any anaylsis? Why waste everyone's time? The county is like the little kid who brings his ball to the basketball game and when he loses he takes his ball and goes home. Councilor Chiravalle is the only councilor who opened his eyes to see the truth while all the other councilors played dumb and ignored the FACTS. Chief Tucker states that "You can't rob Peter to pay Paul." But apparantly its okay for him to rob Paul (the firefighters) to pay Peter (his Battalion Chiefs). This has been going on for years in the fire department and now it is just starting to be exposed and the county doesn't know what to do anymore.