By Patrick Lester Of The Morning Call
June 15, 2015
The case is one of several to go before Commonwealth Court judges beginning at 1 p.m. in the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg.
The borough is appealing a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruling that three dozen Emmaus Fire Co. firefighters are government workers that could form a union. The labor relations board subsequently dismissed Emmaus’ objection to that ruling, prompting the borough to appeal.
The original ruling was based largely on measures the borough and its council have taken in recent years with regard to the operation and oversight of and compensation for firefighters. A PLRB hearing officer wrote in his decision that the borough made firefighters borough employees by paying them hourly wages and “exercising significant control over their terms and conditions of employment.”
The firefighters have since voted to support representation by the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association.
The borough says in its appeal there has been no evidence presented showing that the borough hires or disciplines or has the authority to hire and discipline firefighters. It argues members of the fire department are selected by the department and approved by council.
Emmaus’ attorneys also argue the firefighters can’t claim an employment relationship because their volunteer relief association receives money from the state from a fund paid into by insurance companies. The Emmaus association has received $675,000 over the past eight years, according to court records.
The borough also argues it did not apply civil service and Veterans Preference Act requirements to fire department members, which means they could face criminal and civil liabilities for violating state law.
Lawyers representing both the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors and Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs have filed papers in Commonwealth Court backing the borough’s appeal.
The case already has had significant financial implications for Emmaus, which has about 12,000 residents and an annual general operating budget of about $8 million. The borough has spent $132,635 for legal fees and other costs associated with the case, according to figures provided by the borough. That includes a $30,000 study commissioned to examine the management and staffing needs of the department.
Council last year raised property taxes by an average of about $8, in part in anticipation of legal fees associated with the firefighter dispute.
Earlier this year, council hired a $50-per-hour consultant to help set up a paid professional fire department in the event it loses its appeal. A paid fire department could eventually cost about the same as the police force. Council earmarks about $2.2 million for its police force, which has 18 officers and a chief.