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Mayor of Ohio town recently forced to lay off firefighters sees no saving grace in Senate Bill 5

Following recent layoffs of 13 firefighters in Lancaster, Ohio, despite the local union’s concessions, the town’s mayor, Republican David S. Smith, says the state’s new anti-collective-bargaining law, up for voter approval on Nov. 8, would not have alleviated the situation as supporters of the law claim.

Supporters of the law say the legislation passed in March, Senate Bill 5, will help prevent layoffs by preventing unions from negotiating too-favorable contracts for their members, putting an end to binding arbitration, giving local officials the final say in contract disputes and criminalizing workers’ strikes. But Smith doesn’t think SB5 would have helped his town at all.

“Senate Bill 5 doesn’t save the day for anybody,” he told The American Independent. “It’s still up to the local government to have a meaningful relationship with their bargaining units, which I think we do, here in Lancaster. In particular, both fire and police have taken zero-percent increases over the last two years without SB5 hanging over anyone’s heads.

“Both fire and police [unions’ bargaining units] had closed contracts, but they opened them up to allow us to work with them on a number of issues, not just salary,” he said.

SB5 would also prohibit pension pick-up, a common practice in which the municipality offers to pick up some or all of the employees’ share of their pensions in lieu of a costly wage increase. Governments wouldn’t be permitted to offer it, even if they wished to. Smith said Lancaster “didn’t touch the pension pick-up aspect” in recent negotiations.

SB5 would require all public employees to pay at least 15-percent of the costs for health care.

“The health insurance participation [for employees] used to be minimal; now it’s up to 14 percent,” Smith said about Lancaster. “Three years ago, we asked for 10- and then 12-percent, and we have been working with our employees to have them pay more of their share, because health-care costs have been escalating. But we’ve also changed the health plan itself, so it’s not as favorable as it used to be, and all of that has been done with the understanding of the bargaining units.”

The intention of SB5 is to bring public workers’ contributions for health care and pensions more in-line with those in the private sector, where many have neither employer-offered health care or any pensions at all. But in reality, both of those contract elements can provide a local government extra flexibility in negotiations, allowing them to stall or avoid wage increases.

Smith said Lancaster didn’t have a problem with bargaining units but rather the state’s reduction of funds allocated to local governments. In an attempt to balance the state’s budget, Governor John Kasich reduced the amount paid out to cities and towns in the state by about half.

Smith said Lancaster also received fewer local income tax dollars, as well, compounding the problems.

“We lost 50 percent of that due to the state allocating that money back to themselves, instead of to the city,” he said.

Smith said the city had been unable to fill three other firefighter positions due to budget constraints as well as five police jobs, and around 20 other city positions.

He added the loss of state funding for his city was exacerbated by a decrease in local income taxes collected there. Smith said that, while he was optimistic about stabilizing the short-term with a .25-percent raise in local income tax, he predicted that Kasich’s plan to do away with the estate tax by 2013 would represent yet another obstacle to Lancaster’s return to normalcy.

Unions reacted to the SB5’s passage last February by organizing a massive petition drive to place the law on the state’s November 8 ballot via a referendum, thanks to Ohio’s unusual constitutional provision for citizen’s veto. A majority ‘yes’ vote on Issue 2 means the law would stay on the books; a majority ‘no’ vote would repeal it.

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