The Liberty Township board of trustees approved a one-year extension of firefighter contracts, although a representative of the Delaware County Prosecutor's Office said it wasn't legally obligated to do so.
At their Feb. 19 meeting, trustees voted 2-1 to extend a three-year contract -- including raises -- with firefighters through 2015, in accordance with a 2011 pact.
But first, Delaware County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Will Herbert addressed the board, notifying members they weren't bound to approve the extension since the fire union and township officials both missed a Feb. 1 deadline stated in the original agreement.
The deadline was missed because on Feb. 1, the township was embroiled in a fight to pass a levy to save the fire department.
Herbert added the board still could vote to extend the contracts if it wished.
"The board can adopt a resolution if it so chooses, like any other agreement, or it could not," Herbert said.
Trustees Curt Sybert and Mary Carducci approved the extension, with Trustee Melanie Leneghan casting the sole vote against. She said the township can't afford another year of raises for firefighters.
Fiscal Officer Mark Gerber cited the history of the contract to argue the raises are fair and justified. Gerber said the raises promised under the agreement -- between 6 percent and 6.5 percent per year for four years -- are only high to offset firefighters' agreement to pay more for benefits, including agreements to pay more for health insurance and contribute to their pensions.
Healthcare costs are being shifted to the employees over four years. Firefighters paid 12 percent of healthcare costs in 2012; by 2015, they'll pay 20 percent.
An increased deductible was effective immediately in 2012, jumping from $800 to $2,000 annually for family coverage.
Firefighters also agreed to pick up 10 percent of the township's contribution to their pensions, a provision that also is being phased in; previously, they contributed nothing.
Carducci said she voted to extend the contract in the name of fairness. Sybert said he felt obligated to honor the deal struck with firefighters in 2011.
"This is a public-sector union. It's not going to go away," Sybert said. "We have to negotiate in good faith, and that doesn't mean doing away with the contract because you don't like it."
Overall, firefighters agreed to contribute even more under the contract than they would have under Gov. John Kasich's vanquished Senate Bill 5, Carducci said.
The deal reduced total costs to the township, despite the temporarily buffed up pay schedule. It would have paid more under the old contract, which included minimum yearly 2-percent raises.
In terms of net income, Gerber said the yearly raises amount to about 1.5 percent to 2 percent each, depending on whether a firefighter picks single or family health-insurance coverage, and what portion of the deductible he or she pays.
Most township firefighters opt for the family plan and about 60 percent pay the full deductible.
More importantly, Gerber argued, the contract moves health-insurance risks away from the township.
"Employees have more skin in the game," he said. "Before, they had first-dollar coverage. It was a free good, and people who get free goods don't respect them very much."
Opponents have pointed out that though firefighters agreed to pay more into their pensions, the township will continue to make a 24-percent annual contribution -- an expense that increases each time firefighters get a raise.
Herbert also cleared the air around a second line of attack from Leneghan and others who wished to quash the proposed contract extension. He said the original agreement to extend the three-year contracts for one year didn't circumvent state law.
The law limits contracts with bargaining units to three years, so when the agreement was conceived, township officials approved a three-year plan with a memorandum of understanding to later extend the contract through 2015.
That prompted Leneghan to argue the agreement, which attempted to create a de facto four-year contract, wasn't legal.
But Herbert said it was legally sound.
"Employers can agree to extend a (collective bargaining agreement) at any time, provided the CBA and agreement to extend are not negotiated and executed contemporaneously," he said.