The already contentious and confusing saga of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue's fight to get a ratified contract became even moreso last week when it was alleged by sources within the fire department that the NHRFR's two directors, Michael D'Orio and Jeff Welz, not only had their contracts renewed but were given large pay increases.
Given the fact that the rank and file firefighters have been without a contract since January of 2000, the report hit hard.
However, as is usually the case with contract disputes and union negotiations, there is more than one side to the story.
Back in 2002, when intense negotiations to bring together contracts for seven different contracts representing five different municipalities stalled (North Bergen, Union City, West New York, Weehawken and Guttenberg), all parties involved turned to an arbitrator, the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC).
The decision that the arbitrator handed down, instead of smoothing over the rough spots in the negotiations, made all parties involved (the firefighters' union, the fire officers' union and management) even angrier at the situation. The firefighters' union appealed the arbitrators' decision shortly after a 500-page report was presented.
Now a year has gone by and word leaked through to the rank and file that the two NHRFR directors, Welz and D'Orio, were given new contracts and raises.
Said Firefighters' Union President Glen Michelin in a recent telephone interview, "I don't see how you can give one portion of the department a raise and not the other. Every time I think this can't get worse, it does. I think this is management's strategy to keep morale down. Everyone else has gotten their raises - police, teachers. This shouldn't even be an issue."
Michelin added that the firefighters' union has "tried to talk to the mayor's" but to no avail. However, according to Michelin, "We seem to be getting some help and support from Mayor Brian Stack. He's been asking questions, not just being a 'yes man'. He is concerned about Union City's representation within the NHRFR."
This is a telling statement, as according to sources, Union City has been a strong anti-regionalization force since the concept was implemented. Those same sources state that this whole dispute is about the money that many highly-paid Union City firefighters lost when regionalization took over.
According to an earlier Reporter report, "Union City firefighters and officers had been paid at a much higher average than that of the other four municipalities. The discrepancies could eventually lead to separate pay scales for each NHRFR member."
Union City Mayor Brian Stack is one of the three mayors that sit on the management board (the other members are Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, Guttenberg mayor David Della Donna, North Bergen official Frank Bruno and the former West New York Fire Chief Robert Aiello). According to Stack, he voted against the contract renewal and raise for Director's Welz and D'Orio. Said Stack in a recent interview, "When I went to the Regional [Stack replaced Union City Commissioner Christopher Irizarry] and I saw what was going on, I had to finally open my mouth. Union City pays $700,000 a month to the NHRFR. I spoke at the last meeting. I asked how do you give them [D'Orio and Welz] contracts and raises when the firefighters are in arbitration? I think it makes sense to have a specific director looking out for Union City's interests."
Added Stack, "I don't want to see politicians running the NHRFR."
Misinformation and confusion have plagued the proceedings from the very beginning. Sources have alternately stated that the directors received 25, 17, and 3.5 percent raises. But Weekhawken Mayor Richard Turner has an explanation.
Turner, who, as mentioned above, sits on the management committee that oversees the NHRFR, said in a recent interview, "It's completely not true that they're getting a 25 percent raise. Basically, D'Orio and Welz were hired in 1998 and haven't had a raise since. This raise covers five years. Their contract expired in January and they actually waited to see where the arbitration would go. Our attorney's finally told us that, by law, the directors have to have current contracts. What they got was 17.5 percent over five years, not retroactive to 1999. This is an important point. They will not be paid back pay to 1999. That comes to a 3.5 percent per year raise, which does not even match the cost of living."
Added Turner, "In fact, Jeff and Mike agreed to not take their raise until the PERC hearing takes place and something is decided. The next step is, either everyone comes to an agreement or we go to court. The union management is missing the point. The old firefighters' contract carries forward. They get the same salaries, same benefits, same vacation time. The directors' contracts do not carry forward. This is the point they're missing."
So while it seems that some sense has been made of this latest contentious issue, the fact remains that the NHRFR, at least from a contractual standpoint, is a restless beast.