BETHANY — 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.
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.