NY mayor says he'll 'continue to fight the good fight' in fire dept. dispute

Mayor Joseph Butler Jr. insisted he will press on with his views about how the city can save money by changing the contract with the firefighters’ union


By Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — After a series of stinging defeats regarding the Watertown Fire Department, Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. insists he’s not going to back down.

“It’s frustrating to see,” he said. “But I’m dedicated to fight the good fight I’ve been fighting. I can sleep at night knowing that I’ve been trying to do what I think is right for the taxpayers.”

Mayor Butler insisted that he will press on with his views about how the city can save money by making changes to the contract with the firefighters’ union. (Photo/City of Watertown)
Mayor Butler insisted that he will press on with his views about how the city can save money by making changes to the contract with the firefighters’ union. (Photo/City of Watertown)

Last Monday, Mayor Butler opposed applying for a federal three-year grant that could lead to hiring four additional firefighters. In March, he proposed hiring a Washington, D.C., consultant to complete a study on the operations of the fire department. As a cost-saving measure, he also wanted to expand a policy prohibiting firefighters from getting called into work not only if their colleagues are sick but also when they’re on vacation, have scheduled time off or for bereavement.

Each time, he received no support from council members. But he insisted that he will press on with his views about how the city can save money by making changes to the contract with the firefighters’ union.

The makeup of City Council changed with the election in November of council members Lisa A. Ruggiero and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson, who were supported by the union when they ran last fall and have been more pro-fire department than their predecessors.

They joined incumbent Councilmen Mark C. Walczyk and Cody J. Horbacz, who both believe it’s time for the city to end a nasty, four-year contract dispute with the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191.

Saying it’s “an unreasonable contract,” the mayor said he doesn’t understand the stance that his colleagues have taken on it. They generally support the union’s position to keep a “minimum manning” provision that requires 15 firefighters be on duty at all times.

It’s frustrating because state Supreme Court Judge James P. McClusky ruled in January the minimum manning stipulation is “unenforceable,” Mayor Butler said, contending that the city could finally end “the 20-year noose around taxpayers’ necks.”

He believes the city will ultimately prevail, although the union is appealing Judge McClusky’s decision. The city has too much time, money and effort invested in fighting the union to back down now, he said.

But Councilwoman Ruggiero pointed out that reducing the number of firefighters could have an unanticipated impact on the department. That’s what happened in the city of Oswego, where Mayor William J. Barlow Jr. laid off 17 firefighters in 2016, she said. Oswego is now bringing back eight firefighters because the layoffs went too far.

Councilman Horbacz mentioned a fourth issue on which he and the mayor have been at odds. The councilman believes that the fire department should complete commercial fire inspections, something that the mayor opposes.

The inspections stopped in 2012, but business owners want them done, the councilman said. It would take passing a law to reinstate them.

“This council works to solve problems,” he said, adding that’s the difference with the previous City Council that resulted in two incumbents losing badly in November because of their views against the fire department.

Current Council members have been critical of the city dragging out the contract dispute any longer. The 68-member firefighters’ union has been without a contract since July 2014.

The public supports the way the current council is handling the fire department issue, Councilman Horbacz said. Taxpayers are tired of the contract dispute and its $1 million in legal and overtime expenses, he said.

The legal wrangling has already led to the two sides facing off before the state’s highest court and over numerous filings with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board.

The state Staffing for an Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant to hire four firefighters would cut down on this year’s $500,000 in fire department overtime costs, supporters said.

Councilman Henry-Wilkinson also sees the grant as a way to “figure things out” until all the court proceedings are done and the city knows what it will need to do.

“I look at it as a pause button,” he said, adding that he considers himself as possibly getting the union, the city and individual council members on the same page to resolve the contract issue.

But Councilwoman Ruggiero has been upset with a series of changes to the fire department that City Manager Sharon A. Addison directed, particularly taking the heavy-rescue truck off the road. The councilwoman is convinced that the rescue truck saves lives and should be used.

She’s recommending that the city manager no longer be allowed to change the operations of the fire department since she’s leaving July 1. It should be up to the next city manager, she said.

Despite the disagreements, the mayor said he and his colleagues have not had any heated arguments or exchanges of emails. He maintained that they still work well together to get things done.

Councilman Horbacz said he and the mayor have a good working relationship.

“I really enjoy working with him,” he said, adding he likes Mayor Butler’s professionalism and the way he treats council members.

While the other council members have not supported his initiatives on the fire department, he doesn’t feel like he’s alone in his views.

Mayor Butler maintained that he has not received any phone calls or emails from people who disagree with him. Instead, the mayor said, people have encouraged him to keep up what he’s doing.

Asked if the fire department issues have made him consider not seeking re-election, Mayor Butler said he hasn’t thought about a second term, saying his job as mayor is not yet done.

“It’s the furthest thing in my mind,” he said.

In looking at his the job he’s doing, the mayor is not worried whether people like him or not, stressing “it’s not a popularity contest.” He’s doing what he thinks is what’s best for the city.

“We still have a lot to get done,” the mayor said.

He’s concentrating on getting the contract issue resolved and working on the city’s $10 million state grant, to improve downtown, that was awarded in October.

He and council members must also hire a replacement for the city manager, who’s departing due to the decision not to renew her contract in January.

It might be a difficult task to find a successor for Ms. Addison, however. So far, only six candidates have submitted resumes, with the deadline on May 11.

The pool of candidates might be small, he said, because Geneva and Batavia are also looking to hire new city managers.

And the political situation in Watertown — with such an unpleasant relationship with the fire department — may not be a selling point.

Copyright 2018 Watertown Daily Times

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