JAMESTOWN – As Jamestown City officials await their day in court to challenge a recent binding arbitration decision involving the city police union, a court in another region of the state has already made a ruling in a similar case, favoring the union over the municipality.
Last month the New York Supreme Court 3rd Appellate Division upheld a State Supreme Court decision supporting an arbitration panel’s ruling involving a labor contract dispute between the city of Plattsburgh and its firefighters union, Plattsburgh Firefighters Association Local 2421. According to an article in The Sun newspaper based out of Plattsburgh, a three-member arbitration panel ruled 2-to-1 that the city must pay members of its firefighters’ union $740,000 in backpay and retroactive wage increases.
The Appellate Division decision involving Plattsburgh came more than 18 months after the arbitration panel first directed Plattsburgh to pay the union a 2 percent raise and retroactive payments for wages between 2012-2013.
If the Plattsburgh arbitration decision sounds somewhat familiar to local residents, it’s because a similar scenario is now playing out in Jamestown.
JAMESTOWN CHALLENGES RECENT ARBITRATION RULING
In October 2018, a three-member arbitration panel ruled 2-to-1 that the city of Jamestown had to give a 2 percent salary increase for all members of the Jamestown Kendall Club police union for both 2016 and 2017 and that the city had to honor the retroactive increase by mid December 2018. But in November the Jamestown City Council voted 7 to 1 to challenge the arbitration ruling on the grounds that the ruling violates a state arbitration statute that is supposed to weigh the ability for the municipality to pay (Civil Service Law S 209). According to that section of the civil service law, 70 percent of the arbitration panel’s decision is supposed to be based on the ability to pay by the municipality. Jamestown officials contend the arbitration panel didn’t follow that section of the law – even though in its decision, the arbitration majority opinion specifically stated that they did weigh all evidence and did fact follow the 70 percent statute of state law.
“All the parties agreed that the 70 percent weighting factor in the new statute applied to Jamestown because of Jamestown’s fiscal condition. The statute says that with qualifying financially distressed municipalities, the decision needs to be weighted at a factor of 70 percent on the ability to pay issue,” Jamestown Mayor Sam Teresi said following the November vote.
According to Teresi, if the city honored the arbitration ruling, Jamestown would have to pay about $400,000 just to cover the retroactive payments for 2016, 2017, and 2018. Even more money would have to be paid for 2019, not only because of the compounded police union raises, but also because the city’s firefighters union would also likely see similar raises – due to those two city employee groups have very similar contracts. The firefighters union contract with the city for 2016 and 2017 is also at an impasse.
“Bottom line, the city can’t afford it,” Teresi said in November. “We can’t raise property taxes to pay for an expensive, outlandish award like this. We can’t rely upon other sources of revenue to come in and cover a gap of that amount. And furthermore, the way that it’s going to elevate the base moving forth with future contract negotiations, we simply can’t afford that either.”
PLATTSBURGH ALSO ARGUES 70-PERCENT WEIGHTING FACTOR IN CHALLENGE
Similar to Jamestown, the city of Plattsburgh filed an appeal against the 2017 arbitration ruling for its firefighters’ union, sending the issue to the Clinton County Supreme Court. Just like Jamestown, Plattsburgh city officials believed that the arbitration panel didn’t “take fully into account the level of financial distress the city faces,” arguing the arbitration panel was required to factor 70 percent of its final determination based on the city’s evidence of financial distress.
As part of its case, Plattsburgh argued that since the New York State Comptroller’s Office designated the city as being in “moderate fiscal stress” on its most recent Fiscal Stress List, the second-most dire category, it would be unable to pay. Despite that piece of evidence, the arbitration panel ruled it wasn’t enough to stop a raise from taking place. Jamestown doesn’t even appear on the comptrollers distressed cities list so it had to resort to other pieces of evidence – including the city reaching its constitutional taxing limit – to make its case.
In the Plattsburgh appeal, the Clinton County Supreme Court ruled in January 2018 and upheld the arbitration panel’s decision. When the city appealed a second time, the issue was sent to the state State Appellate Division. There, the court felt that it were in no position to second-guess the arbitration panel’s process for weighing the evidence and that it must defer to the arbitration panel, upholding its initial ruling and handing down its decision last month.
JAMESTOWN PAYS $25,000 TO FIGHT ARBITRATION RULING
As for Jamestown, the city council in November approved a $25,000 payment to the law firm Bond, Schonek and King to represent the city in Chautauqua County Supreme Court to challenge the local arbitration ruling. At the time, it appeared Teresi was unaware that the Plattsburgh case was playing out, basing its argument on the 70-percent statute in state law.
“We’re in a little bit of uncharted waters here because the statute is relatively new and this is the first test on what the statue means by 70 percent weighting factor on ability to pay by fiscally distressed communities,” Teresi said in November 2018 after the council voted to hire a law firm to challenge the arbitration decision.
WRFA reached out to Teresi Thursday afternoon for comment regarding the Plattsburgh case but have yet to hear back from him.
Arguments in that Jamestown arbitration challenge could come as soon as next month in Chautauqua County Supreme Court.