Ohio

Union Fights Shared Fire Rescue Services in Two Cleveland Suburbs

Organizations

Public-sector union members in Shaker Heights and University Heights are divided on a proposal from city administrators to share fire rescue services between the two Cleveland suburbs, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has reported. The University Heights local of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF Local 974) opposes the cost-saving plan, claiming a supportive study should not be trusted.

According to an October 2012 study, Shaker Heights and nearby University Heights could save $750,000 annually by merging their individual fire departments into one, effectively creating a fire district serving two towns with three individual stations. By merging into a two-town fire district, the two Cleveland suburbs would be able to realize significant savings without any layoffs – instead eliminating the need to fill four vacant positions in Shaker Heights and two vacant positions in University Heights.

IAFF Local 974 claims the study, conducted by Oregon-based international consulting firm Emergency Services Consulting International, is “inaccurate” and was intentionally designed to justify city administrators’ desire fore reduced staffing levels.

However, a review of the union’s criticisms suggests that IAFF Local 974 is grasping at straws to protect territorial claims over University Heights and keep staffing at the highest level possible.

An IAFF Local 974 etter to University Heights mayor Susan Infeld complained the study was biased against the union, “[placing] University Heights in a disadvantaged light.” The union claimed that the Shaker Heights Fire Department gave incorrect data to investigators, fudging budget numbers and other information to appear more efficient than the neighboring fire department.

The firefighters union in Shaker Heights, IAFF Local 516, supports the shared services proposal.

While the proposed plan is more akin to a merger than a takeover, the larger Shaker Heights fire department would likely handle the majority of the administrative duties for the new joint district. The Shaker Heights Fire Department – which is larger because it serves the larger of the neighboring cities – currently has its own human resources department, whereas the University Heights Fire Department does not.

After a December 4 meeting to discuss the shared services proposal, IAFF Local 974 legal counsel Susannah Muskovitz claimed Infeld was “hostile” towards union leadership. Infeld disputed this, claiming that she merely answered the “many questions” union administrators posed.

Because public turnout at the previous two meetings was low, the two cities will be holding another round of public meetings to discuss the implications of the proposed merger in January 2013.

Sharing government services such as fire rescue is not a new concept, as many governmental entities pool resources to reduce duplication of services across a given region — which, in turn, helps reduce the need for tax hikes. Public-sector union officials and their political allies often oppose such moves towards government efficiency, claiming that resource-sharing is a tool of administrators concerned only with cutting costs and busting local unions.

For the past year, Governor John Kasich has been encouraging local government leaders to “make big changes” and make “[changes] in culture in a way that’s permanent,” often pointing to shared services as one way local governments can weather economic hardship.

A similar battle between a reform-minded mayor and local public-sector union took place this summer in rural Hillsboro, where Republican mayor Drew Hastings proposed disbanding the city’s 12-member fire department and joining the regional fire district in which the city was located. Without major fiscal reform, Hillsboro is projected to begin running multimillion-dollar deficits in the near future.