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SHERIDAN — Sheridan City Council unanimously voted Monday to deny a grievance filed by the Sheridan firefighters union asking for wage increases for three firefighters who stepped up on the pay scale for the 2012-2013 contract year. The denial means the firefighters will not receive pay increases unless a court ruling determines that the city must pay them.
The International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 276 and the city of Sheridan have been negotiating the firefighters’ contract since last year. In a memo to City Council, Human Resources Director Heather Doke said the city has denied the wage increases for a couple reasons: No city employees have received merit increases since 2008, and in June 2013 City Council approved a budget that did not include merit increases for any employee.
George Neeson, president of the Sheridan firefighters union, said those reasons shouldn’t matter in the case of firefighters who are allowed by state statute to negotiate contracts on a yearly basis, especially since the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled on this exact matter in March, saying that the city had to pay step increases for the 2010 contract year that it had denied.
For Neeson, Monday’s City Council meeting felt like deja vu.
“To me it’s one of those things where you can’t believe that the Supreme Court says one thing and they’re just going to say, ‘Hey, whatever, we don’t care. Take us back to court,’” Neeson said. “That’s really where it’s at. We’re going to have to go through the steps, and we’ll go to the district court just like we did before and hope they’ll see it our way and go from there.”
Neeson said he would inform the union of the Council’s decision and they would decide what to do, but he said it was likely the matter would be taken to court again.
In 2010, Sheridan’s district court ruled in favor of the city, saying it could deny firefighter wage increases even if the denial wasn’t included in the language for that year’s contract. The Local 276 appealed that decision to Wyoming Supreme Court, which used outside evidence and prior actions by the city to rule that the wage increases had to be paid.
The Supreme Court did determine that Article X of the 2010-2011 collective labor agreement was ambiguous, and that is why it used outside evidence.
City Attorney Greg Von Krosigk recommended that City Council deny the grievance because the Supreme Court decision applied only to fiscal year 2010 and did not bind any future city councils to approve step increases.
He said the city should deny the grievance since its actions could be used as “extrinsic evidence” of what Council intentions are regarding the contract.
“If Council wishes to continue in its position that Article X does not require automatic wage increases after the 2010 contract, it should make its position and intentions clear as further extrinsic evidence to be considered by the courts,” Von Krosigk wrote in a legal briefing to the Council.
Neeson said the union believes the Supreme Court ruling makes the contract clear that step increases in wages are required as delineated in a table showing how firefighters can step up seven times for the first seven years of employment and another seven steps after a promotion. The wage increase is 5 percent per step.
“I think the language is in contract now because you have a Supreme Court ruling that says what the contract means,” Neeson said. “It’s virtually attached to it now, as it is, because they have taken a contract that hasn’t changed in two years and said, ‘This is what that language means or the lack of the language in there, that’s what it means.’”
Neeson said the union would have been willing to freeze the step increases if the city had approached them during the contract negotiations and asked to change that year’s contract. Both sides have said the contract could be re-written to specify that wage increases are not automatic, but neither side has made that move yet, Neeson said.
Councilor Levi Dominguez, who was denied his firefighter wage increase in 2010 but chose not to participate in the lawsuit, said he didn’t doubt the firefighters deserved their raises.
“One of the things I wanted to do as a city councilor was approve a raise for all city employees,” Dominguez said. “But the city doesn’t have the money for that right now. Sure, those three firefighters deserve that raise, but I can’t vote for that without a raise for all city employees.”
The rest of the Council agreed with that sentiment, noting that much of the money the city does have specifically cannot be used for salaries.
“Sorry, George, but we’re hoping to get turned around soon,” Mayor Dave Kinskey said.
The amount of the raises would have been less than $10,000, according to Von Krosigk’s legal statement. In the last court process, the Local 276 spent approximately $40,000 in court fees.
In other business:
• City Council approved an amended annexation agreement for the Wrench Ranch II annexation north of town. The annexation will now be approximately 181 acres, which will allow the Veterans Affairs Medical Center to keep its grazing easement that was part of the original 264-acre annexation. The annexed land will be zoned Gateway, Higher Education and R-3 Residence. Dominguez voted against the annexation as he did on first and second readings. This was the third reading, so the land is officially annexed.
• Council members heard from Joe Sharkey, vice president and principle of TMNG Global, who recently evaluated Sheridan, Buffalo and Gillette to determine the area’s readiness to recruit data centers. He said the area is set to recruit small and medium data centers but would need to install more fiber and diversify its fiber with more routes or additional providers in order to recruit large data centers. Northeast Wyoming sits in an ideal position to connect the high-fiber routes along I-80 in southern Wyoming and I-90/I-94 in Billings, Mont., Sharkey said.
• The council heard from Wyoming Independent Living Rehabilitation regarding its programs in the area.