Watertown lawmakers unanimously approve deal with firefighters

Watertown firefighters contract approved

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - A fresh start. That’s how some on Watertown’s city council are viewing a new contract with the city’s firefighters union.

Council members unanimously approved the contract Monday night. It partially resolves a dispute going back longer than half a decade.

But a longtime sticking point is likely to remain in future negotiations.

The deal brings contract negotiations up to date. It provides retroactive pay raises and health insurance increases to union members for the time between July 2016 and this past June.

Council members Lisa Ruggiero, Jesse Roshia, and Ryan Henry-Wilkinson discussed the effort and compromise that went into reaching the much-belabored deal.

However, Mayor Jeff Smith offered what amounts to a dissenting opinion.

He says up until recently he was not in favor of this deal because of minimum staffing requirements, a major sticking point between the two sides.

The city wants to eliminate a clause that says 15 firefighters must be on duty at any given time.

Smith pointed to other cities that are similar to Watertown's size and their lower minimum staffing threshold.

He pointed to the police department which just had four positions eliminated and the other departments dealing with cuts.

He listed the type of calls that the fire department responds to and he discussed the impact of COVID-19 and the impending loss of Watertown's lucrative hydroelectric deal after 2029 as reasons the city's finances are being squeezed.

Smith says even until two weeks ago, he was prepared to fight back against the deal passed Monday night.

“So, with all those reasons why I shouldn’t, I’m going to take a higher road and look at a bigger picture and say, ‘you know what, those were years past,’” he said. “I’ll vote for this contract, but here forward, the city of Watertown is going to run the fire department. We are going to decide the type of calls we want to go to. The fire department has to start negotiating and working with the city of Watertown, because what happened this year in COVID with a loss of about $2 million, in 10 years is just going to be an appetizer to what happens. Every other department in the city of Watertown will be gutted. We need to reduce the manning. We have data, hard data of what other communities do and there’s not a big issue in those communities.”

The firefighters union has maintained that 15-person minimum staffing is vital to providing a safe workplace for the members of the department.

The new contract requires minimum staffing be discussed between the city and union within 60 days.

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