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Despite recent union concessions, firefighters still laid off in Ohio town

Things are bad enough in one small-town Ohio fire department, even without Senate Bill 5, the state’s anti-collective-bargaining law that will go in front of voters via a veto referendum on Nov. 8.

The city of Lancaster, consisting of 35,000 residents in rural Fairfield County, saw one of its three fire stations closed last week, and 13 firefighters suddenly out of a job. Although a .25-percent income tax on the ballot in November could allow the city to re-hire some or all of the laid-off personnel, the vice-president of the firefighters’ union isn’t optimistic.

“I don’t think they’ll pass either one,” said Jeremy Kraner, a Lancaster firefighter and paramedic. “So there will be more layoffs, most likely.”

Kraner blames city officials. “Our city government doesn’t know how to manage money,” he said, citing numerous concessions made by the union, International Association of Firefighters Local 291, in the last few years.

He added that Senate Bill 5 would have an even more deleterious effect on the fire department’s ability to keep the citizens of Lancaster safe, sentiment echoed by other Ohio public safety workers, as The American Independent has reported. Supporters of the legislation say it would prevent lay-offs by giving local municipalities more control over union contracts.

In a blog post on the pro-Issue 2 website, BetterOhio.org, proponents of the law blame public workers for breaking the city’s budget, calling their benefits “generous” and citing the $1 million worth of pension pick-up the city provides. The site says Lancaster workers pay only 12.3 percent of their health-care premiums, as opposed to the 15 percent that would be required under the new law.

The post also mocks Lancaster’s proposed solution to the layoffs, asking, “So what is the only course of action the city of Lancaster currently has to rectify their crisis? You guessed it. Tax hikes.”

“I don’t think Senate Bill 5 could have prevented this; these firefighters were going to be laid off,” Kraner said. “But it will effect our take-home pay, and basically not give us a voice in manning issues; it gives all the power to management. It would cause more lay-offs.”

Kraner said the law, if kept on the books, would be bad for “everybody in Ohio.” The law prohibits unions from bargaining for minimum staffing (PDF).

“And the last three years we went from a 22-man minimum to a 16-man minimum,” said Kraner. “That was part of the concessions our union made.”

Other concessions made in Lancaster include turning down pay raises they were contractually owed last year in an attempt to prevent layoffs. New firefighters in Lancaster make around $38,000 per year, and can earn up to the $70,000s as an officer.

Kraner said he thinks SB5 will result in even lower minimum-staffing levels, and that could result in a dangerous situation for the city, as run times would increase even further.

“We like to think we’re as low as we can go at 16 (minimum manning requirement), because at our last negotiation, we asked them where the thought we needed to be,” he said. “I think for a city our size, we are at the minimum we can be at. I would hope they see it that way.”

Signed into law last March as the signature project of first-term Ohio Governor John Kasich, SB5 has caused a backlash across the state, with unions leading the charge to repeal it. Voters will decide the bill’s fate by either voting ‘yes’ on the referendum, Issue 2, allowing it to stay on the books. Aa majority ‘no’ on Issue 2 will scrap it.

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