West Chester settles lawsuit with union over traveling fire lieutenants

Township department almost fully staffed with full-time firefighters.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

West Chester Twp. trustees have settled a lawsuit they filed against their fire union over the new “traveling lieutenants” program, due in large part to the fact they now have nearly a full complement of full-time firefighters.

The trustees sued the fire union a year ago in Butler County Common Pleas Court over the use of a new program utilizing “traveling lieutenants.” It has saved the township around $250,000 in overtime. The two sides recently settled the matter with the help of a federal mediator by establishing a new comp time policy.

Fire Chief Rick Prinz said the agreement will “cost us a minimal amount of money” to bank 24 hours of comp time for each firefighter. But overall savings come in because comp time is straight regular hours and overtime is time-and-a-half.

“Part of the deal is comp time cannot create overtime. And since we have the staffing now, when a firefighter is off on comp time we put a traveling firefighter into that spot, so we won’t be paying that out in overtime,” Prinz said. “So it’s actually a win for them and a win for us because they get to use comp time and we don’t have to use overtime.”

The idea of the traveling lieutenant policy was to hire/promote three people to fill in when “vacancies existed due to vacation, sick leave, medical leave or other absence” to save on overtime. This was prior to the department finally reaching career, full-time status. The traveling lieutenants are still in place as part of the settlement.

The union filed two grievances over the issue because the township didn’t bargain the matter and filed around 400 more throughout this lawsuit. The settlement expunges all the outstanding grievances on this issue.

The township denied the grievances and it went to arbitration, and the township won. The arbitrator ruled “the board has the authority to determine the size and composition of the workforce.”

The crux of the lawsuit was the township was asking Judge Dan Haughey to confirm the arbitrator’s decision, declare the continuing grievances on this issue moot, dismiss them and prevent them from going to arbitration, and that the township has no obligation to bargain the matter with the union.

Haughey wrote in his opinion the township was asking him to expand the arbitrator’s award and find the pending and future grievances moot, he said that is beyond the court’s authority. Likewise, he said he has no authority to order the township to bargain the grievances.

The settlement was negotiated after the trustees appealed Haughey’s decision — that left both sides sort of wondering who won — to the 12th District Court of Appeals.

Union President Jeff Moore agreed this is a good outcome for everybody since they couldn’t bank or even really use comp time prior to this settlement, “there was a bit of cost savings on one end for the township, contract language that was still in dispute and a benefit with some financial implications for the members.”

The union’s attorney Bennett Allen said “it’s a give and take, comp time definitely has substantial value to our guys as does overtime.” As to the effects bargaining issue — at the crux of the case — he said in effect it has been resolved because, “they engaged in it after the fact.”

Prinz said this lawsuit could not have been settled without a full-time department in place. His budget had the largest increase this year with a 12% bump from $17.7 million last year to $19.8 million. The chief said they “topped” $1.4 million in overtime last year due to staffing issues. He is allowed 60 full-time career firefighters and 18 lieutenants and 20 part-timers. He is two full-time firefighters away from a complete full-time department.

Trustee Mark Welch told the Journal-News “it’s not intuitively obvious” comp time saves money but it does, and it was made possible by beefing up the fire department to full-time.

“This is something the guys in the union were kind of looking at for a long time but it didn’t make sense for us, it was more expensive when we had this full-time/part-time force,” Welch said. “But now that we’ve gone full-time it makes more sense and as an olive branch it’s a win-win.”

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