The ongoing saga of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue department – which serves Union City, West New York, North Bergen, Guttenberg and Weehawken – continued two weeks ago with seemingly positive progress toward the resolution of a contract dispute that has plagued the organization since its inception four years ago.
However, the rank-and-file firefighters may vote against the proposed resolution later this month.
At a meeting held the day before Thanksgiving, North Hudson Fire and Rescue Co-Director Jeff Welz said that firefighters can expect to receive lump-sum partial payments for back wages on Dec. 17. The payments will be $10,000 for officers and $5,000 for rank-and-file firefighters.
Welz also stated that updated pay scales, as decided by a state PERC (Public Employment Relations Commission) arbitrator, would be instituted by the first week of January, and back wages from January 2002 would be paid by the end of next month.
The fire departments from five towns were merged in 1999, but some complaints lingered among firefighters over positions and salaries.
The firefighter’s union, according to Welz, has until Dec. 15 to decide whether they will appeal the latest decision by a state arbitrator. There have been whispers that they will, indeed, appeal.
Disputes still rage
There is still a dispute brewing over vacation time taken by firefighters, and this was part of an appeal made by the firefighters’ union to the New Jersey State Appellate Court. According to officials, some firefighters took vacation days in 2003 that they knew might be taken away from them by the arbitrator. According to the same officials, the department had no way to stop the firefighters from taking the time, as long as there was sufficient coverage in the firehouse. If the days are taken away, the firefighters may end up owing back pay to the department.
At last week’s meeting, the rank-and-file firefighters seemed agitated even after hearing the seemingly good news that they would be soon paid in a lump sum.
Glen Michelin, president of the North Hudson Regional Firefighter’s Association, stepped to the podium and addressed the management committee, which includes Union City Mayor Brian Stack, Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, Guttenberg Mayor David Delle Donna and North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Management Committee Chairman Robert Aiello. He asked if the lump-sum payments could be paid immediately.
“Why do we have to wait for the payroll date?” asked Michelin. “Isn’t it just a matter of simply contacting ADP [the payroll processing company] and getting the checks cut?”
Michael DiOrio, co-director of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Department, answered that a department official had already checked with ADP and found out that the checks could not be sent out before the payroll date.
Michelin’s reasoning was that since this is money that the firefighters have been owed for a long time and falls outside of the scope of a “paycheck” then the men shouldn’t have to wait for the payroll period.
Obviously, this reaction illustrated how frustrated the firefighters are with the whole settlement process, a process that, to date, has taken three years. And it’s not over yet.
In a telephone interview last week, NHRFR Co-Director Jeff Welz empathized with the firefighters, but made it known that many of the ongoing problems stem from what he perceives to be a lack of flexibility on the part of the firefighters’ union.
“Their anger is misdirected,” said Welz. “I understand their anger and frustration, but we [the NHRFR management] are simply following state directives. If they’re unhappy with the PERC decision, they should take it up on a state level.”
Continued Welz, “The contract was provided through the system put in place by the state. None of the sides in this are happy that it took three years for all this to be decided. What I am trying to do here is dispel the myth that the union lost money. The guys will be making 18 to 24 percent per member over a four-and-a-half-year period. Many senior fire officers [with 15 or more years on the job] will be making, with benefits added in, close to $100,000 a year. These are well paid firefighters. Even the new guys get top money.”
According to NHRFR Committee member Richard Turner, the entire new pay package will cost the department’s budget $8.5 million effective Jan. 1, 2004 with the retro pay package costing $5.5 million alone.
What is perhaps the most bothersome and potentially alarming facet of the situation within the North Hudson Regional organization is the polarizing effect it is having on the morale of the department.
From the outset, the rank and file firefighters were against regionalization. The firefighters’ argument is that regionalization creates a dangerous situation that puts the public at risk. There have been claims of certain firehouses being taken out of service, leaving towns without fire coverage. Management and the fire officers’ union have vociferously denied these claims, going so far as to charge a fire captain, Steve Winters, last month with “failure to act in the best interests of the department” and “conduct unbecoming a member of the department,” after Winters made statements at a NHRFR meeting that certain departmental procedures placed the public at risk.
Winters was present at the Thanksgiving Eve meeting, and prior to speaking directly to the management committee, was vigorously defended by Union City Mayor Brian Stack.
“These charges are a disgrace,” Stack said. “They should be dismissed immediately. Captain Winters was answering questions that I was asking of him. I wish the management committee did as good a job running the department as they did in typing up these ridiculous charges.”
The assembled firefighters broke into thunderous applause at Stack’s comments.
The other committee members remained stoic after Stack’s outburst, but some members of the committee were reportedly livid at what they perceived as Stack’s “pandering” to the firefighters’ interests. It is no secret that Stack is an outsider on the management committee and regularly butts heads with various members, most notably Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner.
Winters pummeled the committee with questions pertaining to planning in relation to firefighting policies and procedures. Winters appeared to be well prepared and his demeanor was calm (unlike many of the assembled firefighters who routinely grumbled under their breath and snickered at certain comments by the committee members or fire officers).
Winters asked the committee if they had ever performed a “strategic master plan” or a “risk analysis assessment.” Asked Winters, “If they haven’t been done, what are our decisions based on?”
Committee Chairman Robert Aiello assured them that the department’s decisions are based on sound analysis. He said that if Winters had any further concerns, should take them up with NHRFR Chief Brion McEldowney.
The firefighters who come up to speak at these meetings usually introduce themselves as members of individual fire departments, not as members of the North Hudson Regional Fire Department, a minor point, but telling just the same.
At one point during the meeting, firefighter Ray Colavito, an ex-Union City firefighter, said morale was “at an all time low.” Said Colavito, “You haven’t created one fire department; you’ve destroyed five.”
The regionalization was done at a time when then-Gov. Christine Whitman was encouraging governments to regionalize services and save money. Regionalized services mean fewer high-paid supervisors.
Chief Brion McEldowney was not happy with some of the comments made at the meeting.
Said McEldowney, “I took offense at some of the comments that were made at the meeting. We put out fires, we perform rescues, we have been featured positively on the covers of magazines and newspapers. For [the firefighters] to say that the department is ineffective or mismanaged is totally wrong.”
According to Brian McGorty, president of the fire officers’ union, there is reason to hope, but cautiously.
Said McGorty in a telephone interview, “I think, for the most part, what you saw at the meeting was indicative of how things have been handled over the years. Clearly, there are many issues that our guys are bringing up that are separate from the contract dispute. And the committee likes to paint those guys with a real broad brush. ‘Oh, they’re just angry about the contract,’ they say, which isn’t the case at all.”
Added McGorty, “I’m hopeful, though. For the most part, this department is populated by guys that love this job. I hope this is a salvageable thing. The bottom line is that we are all firefighters, and we do a good job.”