Firefighters' union fight costs Pa. borough more than $100K

The dispute centers over whether or not the firefighters are volunteers or municipal employees

By Patrick Lester
The Morning Call

EMMAUS, Pa. — A battle over the Emmaus firefighters' attempt to unionize has cost borough taxpayers more than $100,000 in less than a year's time, and the legal dispute is far from over.

The borough spent $102,529, mostly for lawyer fees, through the end of September, according to a list of bills obtained by The Morning Call through a Right to Know request. The case is expected to linger well into 2015, perhaps beyond.

The dispute, which officially began in October 2013 when the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association petitioned the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to be certified to represent the Emmaus firefighters, revolves around a disagreement over whether firefighters are borough employees.

The borough maintains that the Emmaus Fire Department has long functioned as a volunteer organization and has reaped the benefits of that status.

A Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board hearing officer in June ruled they were government workers and could form a union. The Labor Relations Board recently dismissed the borough's objection to that ruling, prompting the borough to make plans to appeal its case to Commonwealth Court.

The original ruling was based largely on measures the borough and its council have taken in recent years with regard to the operation and oversight of and compensation for firefighters. A Labor Relations Board hearing officer wrote in his decision that the borough made firefighters borough employees by paying them hourly wages and "exercising significant control over their terms and conditions of employment."

The firefighters in May voted to support representation by the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association. Thomas Dinkelacker, an attorney who represents the borough, said the union has asked to begin the collective bargaining process and indicated recently that he expects that process to move forward.

In the meantime, the borough is defending itself against an unfair labor practice complaint filed by the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association. The complaint claims the borough unilaterally implemented a rule limiting the number of hours firefighters can work and that it terminated one firefighter in retaliation for his participation in and support of the union. The borough denies those claims.

The $100,000 spent on the case brought the borough's overall legal expenses for the year to about $140,000, according to Borough Manager Shane Pepe.

Pepe said no money was earmarked in the borough's fire department budget for legal work. Council budgeted $82,500 for legal expenses for various departments and has spent nearly $37,000 of that for legal matters not related to the firefighters case.

Pepe said council plans to set aside $7,500 for the Commonwealth Court appeal in 2015 and $15,000 for legal costs associated with union negotiations.

The manager said that no money was put aside in the budget for legal expenses for the fire department this year because the union filed its paperwork with the Labor Relations Board around the time the 2014 budget was being finalized.

"However, with that being said, despite the cost, the fire chief has done an excellent job in keeping the department under budget as a whole, as he has made the necessary adjustments to deal with the legal costs," Pepe wrote in response to The Morning Call's questions.

Councilman Brian Holtzhafer said he believes the borough is through "the roughest part" of the costs associated with the case.

The $102,529 in legal expenses represents a little under 1 percent of the borough's overall $12.7 million spending plan.

Much of that has gone to Dimmich & Dinkelacker P.C., the Orefield law firm that represents the borough. The firm received $58,534 thus far for its services, according to a list of borough bills. The borough also has paid $19,092 to Ballard Spahr LLP, which is serving as special labor counsel for the labor case and for union negotiations.

In addition, the borough has spent $24,000 for a study of the fire department.

Pepe said the study is "examining the needs and status of the company, ranging from a management assessment to staffing needs, equipment and facility needs and the other facets of the department." Because the borough has always seen the fire department as a volunteer organization, "there was very little involvement in day-to-day management of the operations of the department," he said.

It was important for council to have a full assessment and understanding of all facets of the department, Pepe added. The study includes interviews, an assessment of equipment and a rating of the department relative to national standards.

"Not only will the study assist in union negotiations, but it will serve as a valuable tool in moving forward and making both the fire department and ambulance corps better in the future," Pepe said.

It's not yet clear what impact the unexpected legal costs will have on the borough's budget going forward. Last year, the borough raised property taxes by an average of $112.

Holtzhafer, chairman of council's Budget and Finance Committee, said a tax increase in 2015 is "doubtful," adding that it's too early in the budget season to know for sure.

A unionized fire department could have significant financial implications for the borough in the future. This year, the borough plans to spend $2.2 million for its unionized police force, which has 18 officers and a chief, according to borough budget documents.

Council earmarked about $513,000 in 2012 and nearly $450,000 in 2013 for fire services.


(c)2014 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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