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Source: Kokomo Tribune

City, fire union saga adds another chapter at Kokomo BOW meeting

Both sides continue jabs as firefighters operate without contract

By George Myers
City officials and Kokomo firefighters added another chapter to their ongoing contract dispute saga Wednesday with a heated exchange between a board president and a retired firefighter.

The incident followed the Kokomo Board of Public Works and Safety’s passing of a measure that approved the city’s HR Policy Manual as the standard for all non-contractual employees, including the fire department, which is currently acting without a contract for the first time.

The move makes a variety of adjustments that will be in place until a new contract is established, explained Kokomo Corporation Counsel Beth Copeland in a previous interview.

Copeland told RTV6 last week firefighters “just aren’t entitled to certain things they once were.”

She said Monday that includes a change in sick leave policy.

Firefighters previously had up to 180 days off at 100 percent pay for a non-work-related injury. Now, under the policy manual, firefighters will be given the same benefits as other noncontractual employees: 85 percent of their pay for a time dependent on years of service.

She also said firefighters, without a contract, are not entitled to grievances. Issues are expected to be addressed by the city’s human resources department.

In attendance Wednesday, though, were around 15 members of the Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396, some of whom questioned the board’s decision and why it was necessary.

But the situation quickly devolved into a fiery debate between Kokomo Board of Public Works and Safety President Randy McKay and retired firefighter and Local 396 member Chuck Sosbe, who expressed frustration to the board about a perceived lack of dialogue.

“We go to a city council meeting the other day, and the [Kokomo Common Council] says we have no avenue to talk to them about our contract. We come here today to talk to you about some items concerning our contract, and you tell us we don’t have the ability to talk to you,” he said.

Local 396 President Chris Frazier expressed similar concerns at a recent BOW meeting; both men were directed to the city’s head of human resources.

“This is not a place to debate. You’ve asked twice now…you’ve been directed. Take that route. I’m going to end the discussion,” McKay told Sosbe Wednesday, later explaining that the board has “to adopt policies to regulate [the KFD] on how they operate (without a contract). That’s what we did today.”

Notably, a months-long dispute between city officials and the Kokomo firefighters’ union took its most contentious and public turn Monday night, when about 200 people, most wearing red shirts meant to symbolize union solidarity, gathered at City Hall to protest the city’s handling of contract negotiations. Many in the crowd Monday represented local United Auto Workers unions.

In an interview with Indiana Public Media Wednesday, Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight responded to the rally, saying Local 396 was previously adamant about receiving a 15 percent raise over three years.

That statement is at odds with those made by union officials Monday night, who said they are only looking for health insurance parity with the Kokomo Police Department.

“When we compare their wages and benefits package with the surrounding areas and even other second-class cities, they’re usually in the top tier in all aspects, whether it be vacation days, holidays, general pay and even retiree benefits and health care,” said Goodnight, noting both sides have expressed a willingness privately to continue negotiations.

“They are without a contract, but it’s because of their own doing – their inability to either read or comprehend the ordinance, which was written in the 1970s.”

Also at the center of Wednesday’s discussions at the Board of Works meeting was a recent ruling by Howard County Judge George Hopkins in favor of the city. The judge recently ruled against the union after it filed a lawsuit against the city in Early December, asking the court to not terminate the fire contract at the end of 2017.

The issue was prompted by comments related to how often union and city officials met before a legal deadline and what Sosbe said is the usual practice of disregarding that deadline.

Later that month, Hopkins denied the union’s sweeping request for preliminary injunction; he later called the issue of an arbitration order “moot” in a written clarification.

City ordinance lays out a 45-day negotiating window during which arbitration can be requested. The two sides began contract negotiations on June 7, but the union did not submit a written intent to bring the matter to arbitration until Oct. 6.

Ultimately, Hopkins ruled that neither party requested arbitration within the 45-day window following the first meeting, and never had any formal discussions about extending or waiving deadlines.

At the June 7 meeting, the union presented the city with more than 80 proposals to modify the contract, according to city records. Those records also show that between June 7 and Oct. 11 the two sides met eight times for a total of more than 40 hours.

“The city better be ready to go to arbitration every time because you only met with us two times before the 45-day period,” claimed Sosbe.

“We’ve heard that threat,” responded McKay. “Every day that I’ve been here, we’ve heard that threat.

Following the meeting, Frazier said the union will continue pursuing the court case, claiming that Hopkins has not given “clear rulings.”

He also said a firefighter’s promotion to a captain, approved by the Board of Public Works and Safety Wednesday and recommended by Kokomo Fire Chief Nick Glover, subverted the usual contract-based process.

Officials, said Frazier, “have gone in and just picked a person without offering it to the other people. …We’re just seeing a systematic chipping away of all the things that make us function.”

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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