Opponents of a plan to extend Liberty Township firefighters' contracts say the move might circumvent state law.

Opponents of a plan to extend Liberty Township firefighters' contracts say the move might circumvent state law.

At a meeting of the board of trustees last Wednesday, Feb. 6, officials debated whether a contract extension promised to firefighters as part of an agreement struck in November 2011 should be honored.

If approved, the deal would extend a three-year contract -- including raises -- by one year, through the end of 2015.

Under the contracts, which were effective starting in 2012, firefighters agreed to pick up a bigger portion of their health insurance and pension costs in exchange for wage increases.

Officials hammered out a plan to phase in the agreement over four years.

But because state law limits contracts with bargaining units to three years, township officials approved a three-year plan with a memorandum of understand- ing to later extend the contract through 2015.

That prompted Trustee Melanie Lene-ghan to argue the agreement wasn't legal.

"The Ohio Revised Code says you can only have a three-year contract," she said. "You circumvented the law and tried to make it a four-year contract. I don't want this township to break the law."

Attorney Craig Paynter represents the township. He said the original agreement to extend the contracts after one year had passed was legally sound.

After debating the issue, trustees agreed to submit the question to County Prosecutor Carol O'Brien for review.

Trustee Curt Sybert believes the township must comply: "We're contractually bound to the agreement. We agreed to it; it was vetted in open sessions and everything was approved above board."

He added: "What does it look like to the 85 percent of the public who just approved a levy when you're not going to man up and agree to the contract that you signed three years ago?"

Township Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber said the levy overwhelmingly passed by voters Feb. 5 will cover fire department operations, including the raises, through 2015.

But Leneghan and several residents argued the township simply can't afford to append an extra year of raises to the existing contract.

It won't pay for capital needs, such as a medic vehicle that needs to be replaced, but Leneghan and others said forgoing raises in 2015 would help pad the township's coffers.

Gerber also said the raises promised under the agreement -- between 6 percent and 6.5 percent per year for four years -- are only high enough to offset firefighters' agreement to pay more for benefits. In terms of net income, he said the yearly raises amount to less than 1.5 percent each.

But some, including resident Karl Salmon, argued Gerber is overstating how much firefighters are actually paying for healthcare and ignoring other personnel costs.

The agreement to extend the contracts also came under attack for a second reason.

Leneghan said it is nullified because officials missed a Feb. 1 deadline stated in the agreement.

Other officials said the agreement may remain legally binding regardless.