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Source: Kokomo Perspective

Thousands in tax dollars went to fire union negotiations

Devin Zimmerman

(Editor's note: This column appeared as the editorial in the Jan. 24 edition of the Kokomo Perspective.)

Legal representation, as it turns out, isn’t cheap.

In recent months, the negotiations between the city of Kokomo and Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396 dominated headlines. Those negotiations, which began last June and lasted for five months, bore no fruit, and now the firefighters of Kokomo Fire Department are working without a contract with the city for the first time in history. Those fruitless talks extended all the way to the local court system as the union battled for arbitration with the city, and they came at a high price to taxpayers.

The largest taxpayer-associated costs came by way of legal representation for the city of Kokomo. The city contracted with Indianapolis attorney David Swider for the collective bargaining and eventual court proceedings, which came after the union filed its civil suit against Kokomo.

Those services to date, according to the city, came with a price tag of $64,000.

According to court records, both parties negotiated for a five-month period, meeting eight separate times and expending more than 40 hours of bargaining and caucuses. The cost also is associated with the legal battled launched after both parties reached an impasse, wherein on Dec. 6 the local firefighter union filed a civil suit seeking to have the city compelled into participating in binding arbitration and to have the firefighters’ previous three-year contract extended past its expiration.

Eventually, Superior Court IV Judge George Hopkins sided with the city of Kokomo, ruling that the city couldn’t be forced to arbitrate because the deadline for requesting arbitration, a 45-day window, was laid out clearly in local ordinances and had been passed.

In their filings, Local 396 also claimed that allowing their contract to lapse would endanger the firefighters’ health insurance. However, no evidence was provided to support that claim, according to Hopkins’ ruling. As such, the union’s contract expired at the beginning of the year. In effect, this shifted the firefighters from acting as contractual employees to non-contractual, making them subject to the city’s policies instead of mutually-negotiated terms.

Since his ruling, a joint request for clarification was made by both parties in the suit on Jan. 4. Hopkins affirmed his previous ruling on Jan. 12, with court records indicating the ruling “was intended to deny the request for an emergency preliminary injunction and/or temporary restraining order. (The) court also believes the issue of mandate and arbitration order are moot.”

Throughout it all, other costs also may be associated with the unsuccessful collective bargaining efforts and court proceedings.

Those costs, consisting of taxpayer-funded salaries of those involved in the more than 40 hours of bargaining and caucuses, however, are harder to determine.

According to city attorney Beth Copeland, those include both the salaries of the firefighters who sat in on the efforts, other Kokomo employees, and her own.

“In addition to known costs spent negotiating and defending the lawsuit filed by the fire union, the City has also incurred substantial costs from the hours of work spent by City of Kokomo employees in the Controller’s Office, Human Resources Department, Corporation Counsel’s Office, and the dollars spent paying representatives of the fire union to attend meetings,” said Copeland.

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