Warren approves fire contract; hires firm for federal lawsuit

WARREN — The contract between the International Association of Firefighters Local 204 and the city officially was ratified by City Council Wednesday, giving the firefighters the same contract approved by other city departments last year before the income tax increase was approved by voters.

The firefighters union wanted an increase in pay, but the city rejected that proposal, saying at the time the contract was being negotiated, its budget was so tight that none of the unions received increases and the union members had to pay increasing health care premiums.

The union argued its members should receive an increase because its members did not receive the same level of contributions toward retirement as other city unions.

Conciliator Richard P. Gortz agreed with the city’s argument that they promised taxpayers none of the 0.5 percent income tax increase would be used pay for higher salaries and benefits.

“Trust will have been tarnished,” Gortz wrote in his report.

Also Wednesday, council authorized hiring the law firm of Frost, Brown and Todd LLC to defend the city in a federal lawsuit filed by The Freshwater Accountability Project in June because it claims that Patriot Water and city officials have been violating different aspects of the Clean Water Act over a four-year period.

Law Director Greg Hicks told council members the city needed to hire the outside law firm because environmental law is beyond the expertise of the city’s attorneys.

Council also approved paying the firm $17,131.63 to determine if there is enough merit in the suit to require a defense.

Hicks said the lawsuit has at least 20 points in which the plaintiffs argue Patriot Water and the city failed to take action to prevent high levels of chemicals from getting into the Mahoning River.

While agreeing the need to hire an outside law firm was necessary, Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at large, told council members they could limit the amount spent, which would require the law department to come back and explain the progress of the case.

Previous councils were surprised at the cost of litigation, but by the time they were presented the bills, they were required to pay them, Rucker said.

Because the issues in the lawsuit are based on actions or inactions taken by the city’s wastewater division, it is that department, not the city’s general fund, that is responsible for legal fees associated with the lawsuit.

“There is $77,000 in its budget that may be used for its legal defense,” Councilman Eddie Colbert, D-at large and finance committee chairman, said. “Since the $17,131 already is coming out of its budget, there will be about $60,000 available.”

Hicks guaranteed the law department will be required to seek more funds for this lawsuit.

“We will be coming back,” he said.