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Bethany firefighter's job eliminated after city told to raise pay

Josh Morgan was days away from reaching his one-year mark with the Bethany Fire Department when a dispute between the city and Local 2085 forced him out of his position
by Kyle Fredrickson Modified: January 28, 2014 at 2:00 pm •  Published: January 27, 2014

— All Josh Morgan ever wanted to be was a firefighter, so as a rookie he didn't mind extra duties around the fire station like cleaning toilets, vacuuming carpets and straightening offices.

He and his wife bought a house and were expecting a child, who would be named — what else? — Blaze.

That's why he was so devastated to learn he was being let go from his dream job, not for anything he did or didn't do, but because of an unusual dispute between the firefighters union and the city of Bethany.

The union demanded an 8 percent raise, and the city agreed to the pay hike, but then eliminated Morgan's job to pay for the increase.

On Dec. 13, 2013, Morgan was brought into Fire Chief Scott Schroder's office and told a letter was on its way to the station. Its contents explained why his position was being eliminated on Jan. 4, three days short of his anniversary as a firefighter.

The firefighter's union filed a grievance with the city regarding the decision, but negotiations have stalled.

“Put yourself in my position,” Morgan asked. “Picture yourself at 28 years old, you've got the career of your dreams and you are wrongfully being let go — plain and simple.”

Bethany Mayor Bryan Taylor says Morgan was let go because the fire department chose the pay increase over keeping its newest firefighter.

Morgan and the firefighters of Local 2085 say they were blindsided by the decision, which they described as retaliation by the city after a neutral arbitrator ruled Bethany had the funds, and was contractually obligated to provide the raise to all 22 firefighters, including Morgan.

Binding arbitration

An amendment to the fire department's contract, which was approved by the Bethany City Council, states that the city's goal is to compensate employees to the market value of surrounding communities.

Brian Murray, Local 2085 president, a seven-year member of the fire department, said that promise has not been kept.

According to data compiled by the International Association of Fire Fighters, the average hourly pay for a firefighter in the area market noted in Bethany Fire Department's contract is $27.40. The average Bethany firefighter makes $20.23 an hour — 35 percent below the market average.

“Since we had that in our contract, there were many years that went by where we didn't ask for a raise because they said they didn't have the money,” Murray said. “We've never tried to fight them on it, we've always believed in it.”

CPA looks at budget

The union hired a certified public accountant, Bob Newbrough, to audit Bethany's budget to determine whether the city had enough funds to support a wage increase before this year's negotiations. Murray said results showed Bethany could support a 16 percent pay raise. The department settled for 8 percent as its last-best offer.

The city responded with a 4 percent last-best offer, the same bid it extended to all other city employees for cost-of-living increases — not including two ranks of police officers who received a 4 percent step raise.

When the two sides failed to reach middle ground, the negotiations went to arbitration. T. Zane Reeves, of Albuquerque, N.M., served as the neutral chair in the process, analyzing evidence presented by arbitrators hired for the city and Local 2085. Reeves concluded Bethany had $51,882 in its budget to cover the 8 percent increase, and the city was contractually obligated to keep its fire department as close to the area market average as possible.

However, Reeves did not have the authority to designate how Bethany would appropriate the raise and did not have control over manpower decisions. The city council voted to fund the increase within the fire department's budget — the decision that led to Morgan's dismissal.

“Through negotiations, they never told us if we get a raise that they would fire someone,” Murray said. “They lost arbitration, so this seems like retaliation.”

John Shugart, Bethany city manager, testified during arbitration and is a direct superior to the fire chief.

“Prior to the arbitration, (Morgan) knew and the fire chief knew,” Shugart said. “For them to say that they had absolutely no clue, that's simply not true.”

Balanced budget

Since Morgan was let go, Murray has looked into finding ways to cover the $51,882 wage increase for the fiscal year. He said changes to the city contract with emergency medical services and wages left over from a firefighter who will deploy on temporary military leave in March would make up the difference.

But the city contends those funds are either not long-term solutions for funding a wage increase or have already been appropriated elsewhere.

“President Murray is not in charge of the department budget,” Shugart said. “He doesn't have a degree in accounting. He doesn't have a master's degree in finance or 25 years experience dealing with the budget.”

Mayor Bryan Taylor said the city needs to be careful with its money. It needs to be prepared for disasters large and small — whether it is a tornado or sewer line break.

“If you don't have money set aside for all of those different types of catastrophes, you're just a sitting duck,” Taylor said. “I refuse to let this city be a Detroit. We're not going to go bankrupt. So watching the bottom line and watching how we spend money is a big concern.”

Looking for work

Morgan still hasn't cleaned out his personal locker at the station and his name remains engraved on a bronze plate above a fire protection suit in the garage. The 2014 calendar with color-coded firefighter shift dates still hangs on his kitchen wall in Edmond.

“I have a family to provide for, a newborn, three kids and a wife,” Morgan said. “I can't sit around and wait. I would love nothing more than to get my job offered back to me. I'll be actively applying at any fire department that's hiring.”

Morgan said he's received interest from the Stillwater Fire Department. But if he accepted a position, his family would need to move inside its fire district — a difficult change for the Morgan's three older children. The family's recently purchased home would be back on the market.

Murray said morale at the station has been considerably lower since the decision was handed down.

“He was just like every one of us when he got the job, just super excited to be a firefighter,” Murray said. “To all of us, it's the greatest job in the world.”

Taylor and Shugart said they share that sadness for Morgan's situation.

“I hate that Mr. Morgan lost his job, that's a terrible thing,” Taylor said. “That's one thing that keeps both John (Shugart) and I up at night.”

by Kyle Fredrickson
OSU beat writer
Kyle Fredrickson became the Oklahoma State beat writer for The Oklahoman and in July 2014. A native Coloradoan, Fredrickson attended Western State College before transferring to Oklahoma State in 2010 and graduating in 2012. Fredrickson...
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