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County fire district wins against union complaint

County fire district wins against union complaint

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Elko County Fire Protection District logo

ELKO – Union firefighters lost their complaint to the Nevada Government Employee-Management Relations Board alleging that the Elko County Fire Protection District failed to bargain in good faith during labor negotiations.

The order issued in July and discussed at the Aug. 5 meeting of the Elko County Board of Fire Commissioners was in favor of the fire district, and said the “complainant shall take nothing by way of its complaint.” In other words, no fees or costs were awarded the union.

“I believe the opinion says it all,” Cash Minor, assistant Elko County manager and chief financial officer, said in an Aug. 6 email.

Elko County Manager Rob Stokes told the fire board — which is made up of Elko County Commissioners — at its Aug. 5 meeting the state board’s decision was unanimous, and he understood it was unusual for the board to issue a 50-page opinion.

In the legal opinion on the union’s allegations of bad faith bargaining and failure to comply with requests for information in a timely manner, the state board’s findings included that it didn’t see the information issue “as an indicator of bad faith bargaining,” especially because the union received the information.

Also, the opinion states that the complainant failed to present substantial evidence of fraud, deceitful action or other dishonest conduct by the fire district, and says that “simply a failure to reschedule meetings within five working days, in connection with the conduct of the parties as a whole, does not lead this board to find bad faith bargaining.”

The opinion says there was a two-month delay in bargaining meetings between the union and the fire district but it details the fire district’s reasoning.

Although the opinion sides with the fire district, the state board cautioned that further delays would most likely “have resulted in a bad faith determination.”

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 5046’s president, Matthew House, issued a statement Aug. 8 that the association “is, of course, disappointed with the EMRB’s decision.

“But we are far more disappointed that Elko County decided, rather than meet with the firefighters and have a conversation, that it would be more productive to defend their actions that ‘were on the verge of conduct not to be tolerated in bargaining relations’ and ‘teetered on the line of bad faith bargaining,’ which cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” he said.

House was quoting from the EMRB opinion.

“As the EMRB also stated in their decision, ‘while the respondent (fire district) genuinely believed the issues before it would negatively affect respondent’s budget and the ability to pay increases,’ they could have approached negotiations with that stance,’” he said.

Local 5046’s complaint and the EMRB’s subsequent opinion against the union are separate from the ongoing dispute over firefighter pay and health benefits.

A fact-finder report that favored the union’s side in bargaining was not binding, and the contract issues are slated for arbitration, Amanda Osborne, director of Elko County’s personnel department, told the fire board at the Aug. 5 meeting.

The union earlier won a battle when the firefighters complained that Elko County Commissioners were tucking fire district business into their regular county meetings, rather than holding separate meetings as the Elko County Fire Protection District Board. The district now holds fire district meetings under a separate agenda.

Elko County, fire district and union representatives testified months ago at the state board’s hearing on the union complaint to the state board.

The EMRB opinion provides background that says that prior to Jan. 1, 2015, Elko County relied on the Nevada Division of Forestry for fire suppression activities in the county, but after the Nevada Legislature determined in 2014 that it could no longer provide all-risk services, the county created the fire district.

Initially, the fire district was funded out of the Elko County general fund, but in July 2018, the county commissioners voted to establish a tax district. The fire district also participates in the Wildlife Fire Protection District managed by the Nevada Division of Forestry and pays to do so.

The opinion states that while the fire district was negotiating with NDF in 2019, contract negotiations were starting between the firefighters and the fire district, but the fire district needed time to negotiate with NDF, which sought more than $1 million a year from the fire district.

The board of fire commissioners last week voted to contribute $600,000 for the 2020-21 fiscal year, the same amount the district paid for the wildland fire program in the fiscal year that expired June 30.

The first negotiations between the firefighters and fire district started in March 2019, and then there were disputes over meeting dates and meeting delays, followed by the fire district’s declaration that it didn’t have the ability to cover the financial changes sought by the union, according to the EMRB opinion.

The fact finder report was the next step, with the report concluding that the fire district could afford the union’s demands.

“The board has not held that the act of declaring an inability to pay amounts to bad faith bargaining,” the opinion states, noting the union contended the inability to pay should not have taken three months.

After the fact-finding report, the firefighters and fire district went to arbitration.

The arbitration was slated for March and then April 30 and May 1 but has been “purportedly delayed due to the health crisis,” the opinion states.

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