Ocean City Voters To Decide Referendum; Council, Union Disagree On Arbitration’s Impact

Ocean City Voters To Decide Referendum; Council, Union Disagree On Arbitration’s Impact
Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — With the clock ticking on next Tuesday’s municipal election, both sides in the binding interest arbitration charter amendment the town’s firefighter-paramedic union continue trying to persuade voters.

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, to utilize a third-party arbitrator to resolve 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 on the referendum question would add binding interest arbitration.

In advance of Tuesday’s election, town officials have sent a letter to Ocean City voters and purchased ad space in this paper outlining their opposition to the charter amendment referendum for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the potential for an increase in property tax rates to offset contract increases that could come from impasses decided upon by a third-party arbitrator, the city maintains. IAFF 4269 President Ryan Whittington issued his own statement after viewing the town’s letter, essentially countering the positions.

Ocean City’s letter and ad and the union chief’s statement read like a point-counterpoint debate, but the issue will ultimately be decided by the voters. For example, the town’s literature points out the history of fairness in negotiations with the union dating back to the allowance for collective bargaining back in 2007.

“Since then, we have successfully negotiated four union contracts,” the town’s ad reads. “Each of these contracts has included a pay and benefits increase for the 41 employees in the collective bargaining union, whose average base salary and benefit package is just under $100,000. These negotiations were fair, professional and fiscally responsible.”

However, Whittington’s statement essentially asserts it has never been about the money for union members, but rather a seat at the table when decisions are made regarding departmental operations. It’s no secret the firefighter-paramedic union is still bristling over the controversial shift change that came out of the last negotiated contract.

“Unfortunately, the Mayor and Council used tax dollars to work against your firefighter-paramedics,” the statement reads. “Many of the statements made in their letter are misleading. This charter amendment has nothing to do with your firefighter-paramedics wanting more money. To us, it’s about those we serve and protect.”

The town’s ad couches the charter amendment referendum largely in terms of the potential fiscal impact should it be approved by the voters.

“A charter amendment to include binding interest arbitration will remove your elected officials from final decisions with regard to pay and benefit increases for union members,” the ad reads. “These decisions have a direct impact on our general fund budget. An increase to the general fund budget could certainly result in an increase to Ocean City taxpayers.”

The town’s ad also asserts a successful referendum on the charter amendment would take the decision-making process out of the hands of the elected officials that voters chose to represent them.

“This leaves those decisions to a single arbitrator from outside of this area who does not represent Ocean City taxpayers or have the same vested interest in maintaining our tax rate,” the town’s ad reads.

However, Whittington’s counter-statement alleges the town’s position on a third-party arbitrator is disingenuous.

“The comment from the town that this ‘will remove your elected officials’ and ‘leaves a single arbitrator from outside of this area who does not represent the Ocean City taxpayers or have the same vested interest in maintaining our tax rate’ is again fear-mongering,” the statement reads. “The town of Ocean City charter that the Mayor and Council raise their right hand to clearly states the process for selecting an arbitrator and the factors the arbitrator should consider. Interest arbitrators are highly educated professionals who are mutually agreed upon by both the town and the firefighter-paramedics. These individuals are completely neutral. This is not ‘some guy off the street’ and the town stands to benefit just as much from the charter amendment as your firefighter-paramedics.”

The town’s ad points out Ocean City’s storied fiscal dedication to the firefighter-paramedics and public safety in general.

“We dedicate $36 million to public safety, which is over 42 percent of our general fund budget and 88 percent of Ocean City’s real property tax revenue,” the letter reads. “Our firefighters and paramedics have our complete support. A charter amendment, however, is not the way to show this support.”

Whittington’s again asserts the referendum is less about money and more about departmental policies and procedures.

“The town is ultimately responsible for creating a funded budget and for setting the tax rates,” the statement reads. “The charter amendment would not change that. 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.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

Alternative Text

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.