City, Union Differ Over Referendum’s ‘For’ Vote Consequences; Mayor Maintains Taxes Will Go Up, Union Head Says ‘Flatly Wrong’

City, Union Differ Over Referendum’s ‘For’ Vote Consequences; Mayor Maintains Taxes Will Go Up, Union Head Says ‘Flatly Wrong’
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — With much of the early talk about the municipal election focusing on the candidates, little has been said about the pending referendum for binding interest arbitration for the town’s firefighter-paramedics, but both sides fired salvos this week.

When voters head to the polls for next month’s Ocean City municipal election, included on the ballot they will find a referendum question which, if approved, would allow for binding interest arbitration for the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF 4269. A vote for the referendum would result in a third-party arbitrator resolving impasses during contract renegotiations with the town. The IAFF already has the right to bargain collectively during contract renegotiations with the town, but approval from the voters would add binding interest arbitration to the negotiation tool box.

At the close of Monday’s marathon meeting, Mayor Rick Meehan addressed the pending vote on the IAFF’s referendum question and outlined why the Mayor and Council are opposed. Meehan also suggested the town’s electorate should assume the same position.

“The Mayor and Council are in opposition to this charter amendment,” he said. “We would suggest the voters of Ocean City vote against that charter amendment. It is in their best interest to do so. We’re the ones elected to make those decisions and we gave that particular union the right to bargain collectively without them having to go to referendum.”

Meehan made it clear the opposition did not suggest the elected officials did not support the firefighter-paramedics. Instead, he suggested the IAFF and its members have been treated fairly by the town.

“We hold that union in very high regard,” he said “I think they’ve been well-treated and they perform as we hoped they would. In that regard, we have a great partnership.”

However, Meehan continued to hammer home the opposition to the referendum question including a not-so-veiled threat it could hit residents in the wallet.

“What the charter amendment would do would change their bargaining relationship with the Town of Ocean City,” he said. “It would give them binding interest arbitration, which would allow one single arbitrator from out of this area to make the final decision on any item when we come to an impasse on during these negotiations which will raise your taxes.”

Meehan suggested the town’s elected officials, and not a neutral third-party arbitrator, should be making contract decisions that could affect the bottom line.

“This will take the decision away from the same people that are sitting up here that are dedicated and responsible to this community,” he said. “I believe we are unanimous in opposition, and we want the citizens to know what our position is. I believe we need to send a letter to the registered voters to let them know our position.”

The council voted unanimously to send a letter to the town’s registered voters. Councilman John Gehrig reiterated the mayor’s position.

“Just to be clear, we support the fire department and the paramedics,” he said. “It’s not about whether we support them or not. We’ve successfully negotiated with them in the past. It’s just a matter of do you want to flip a coin and pick somebody off the street or someone elected to represent you in negotiations? They are our friends, they’re in our community and we eat dinner with them. We support them completely. This is not a question of whether we support them or not. The question is who makes the decision during negotiations.”

IAFF 4269 President Ryan Whittington wasted no time responding to the town’s position after learning of the comments Monday.

“The mayor’s claim it will raise taxes is flatly wrong,” he said on Tuesday. “Voting for the charter amendment gives Ocean City firefighter-paramedics a voice in how we serve and protect our citizens. As firefighter-paramedics, we know what it takes to keep the public safe It’s what we do every day. Politics have no place in public safety.”

Whittington said binding interest arbitration merely provided another tool in the negotiation process, a tool that might never be needed.

“Binding interest arbitration is a safeguard against bad decisions,” he said.  “That is all.  It will not raise taxes.  Binding interest arbitration has not impacted tax rates since it was given to police employees in 2003.  In fact, the FOP and the town have never used the tool.  Why? Because, as a tool, binding interest arbitration has helped the FOP and the town resolve their disputes.  Now, firefighters want the same tool and the same result: better resolution of disputes.  That has no impact on tax rates.”

Whittington reiterated the union’s position the referendum had little or nothing to do with taxes.

“If the two sides to negotiations find it impossible to agree on an issue, they together choose a qualified arbitrator, not ‘some guy off the street’ to listen to each side’s position and evidence,” he said. “The arbitrator must then consider each side’s position in light of various factors. An arbitrator cannot increase taxes or tax rates. Property tax rates are set by the town, as are other tax rates that fund the town.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.