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Union chief challenges city manager over layoff

ZEPHYRHILLS — Mike Richards, president of the Zephyrhills Firefighters Union 3884, challenged Zephyrhills City Manager Jim Drumm this week to join him in giving up their 3 percent pay raise to allow an employee, who will be laid off as a result of an arbitration ruling, to continue working through the holidays.

The arbitration hearing involved Randy Forkum, who was fired Feb. 9, 2012, related to his return from an injury to active duty and two unauthorized absences. The city lost the arbitration hearing and Forkum must be rehired.

The employee hired by the city to replace him, Brian Lipinski, will be laid off because Forkum must get his former position back.

Drumm said in a Thursday interview he would not be accepting Richards’ challenge.

“We’re not going to do that,” he said.

Drumm said that city procedures and union contracts have no provisions for one person’s salary to be used for paying another salary. He said city officials are looking at some additional funding to keep Lipinski working through the holidays.

Richards spoke at the end of the regular city council meeting on Monday.

Before speaking, Richards gave each council member a folder with paperwork outlining the communications and forms surrounding the Forkum case and the arbitration case of former Fire Marshal Kerry Barnett.

Barnett was fired on Feb. 13, 2012, for violating the city policies on working while on sick leave. The city also lost his arbitration case.

Richards said: “This has been two miserable years at the fire department,” adding that he had email copies to prove that the union was willing to resolve the cases before going to arbitration. The city incurred unnecessary expenses allowing the cases to go to arbitration, he said, because “Mr. Drumm would not work with us.”

Concerning the arbitration hearings, Drumm responded: “First off, we already argued the cases. I don’t see the point of arguing the cases again. We had some differences of opinions in the arguments. The arbitrator ruled on the cases but it doesn’t mean they didn’t violate the rules. They use a technicality sometimes to get people off. We understand that there has been a ruling. It’s unfortunate (for us) but that’s what happened.”

In the Forkum case, Richards said the cost to the city was more than $152,000 without attorney’s fees because the city hired a new firefighter and then had to reimburse lost wages to Forkum when the arbitration was lost. The city paid two firefighters for one year, but only had one firefighter working, he said.

Richards said Lipinski is due to be laid off just before Thanksgiving. He also said Lipinski was never officially told by the city that his position could be affected by an arbitration outcome.

“The city would have to generate a new position, the union respects that,” Richards said in an interview Tuesday. “(Lipinski) will be the first recalled if an opening should occur.”

But, he added, Lipinski might have had other options if he knew the position could be temporary.

Drumm said he does not know personally if Lipinski was told that his position was dependent on the outcome of arbitration.

“I don’t know that,” he said, “He should have been told.”

But Drumm said the city has fulfilled its contracted obligations to him as required by the union. The contract required that an employee about to be laid off under such circumstances to be given 90 days notice, he said, and Lipinski was given notice in August.

“He’s known since August, it’s not like he just found out about it,” Drumm said.

Drumm said he has some salary funds that have not been used due to positions that are not yet filled.

“I have 30 days’ worth of unspent salaries I could potentially look at extending him temporarily,” Drumm said.

An extension is not addressed in union contracts, however, and Drumm wants to talk to the union because he does not want it to be considered a precedent.

Drumm added that Lipinski is a good employee.

“I feel very bad for Lipinski,” he said. “We’d love to keep him on board honestly, he’s done a lot of great things for us. Can we extend him? Possibly.”

Barnett told council members that it has been about six weeks since he won his arbitration and he has not been contacted about working out the details of his reimbursements. City officials have said that budget details held up the work, but Richards said someone should have contacted him about the delay.

Richards also said that Barnett had offered to settle his case before arbitration, offering to remain a lieutenant and a 5 percent pay reduction, back pay to the date that the city eliminated the fire marshal position from the budget, a 50 percent return of his sick time, a $470 insurance reimbursement and expunging his disciplinary action from his record. The city rejected the offer. In an email, Drumm responded that Barnett’s offer was “more beneficial to Mr. Barnett than we believe an absolute loss on the city’s side would be after arbitration.”

The arbitration ruling entitles Barnett to full pay reimbursement and rank.

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