Bellevue firefighters' questioned contract puts hires on hold - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 12:03 am
Legality disputed
Bellevue firefighters' questioned contract puts hires on hold

Questions about the legality of Bellevue's fire contract have interrupted plans to hire much-needed full-time firefighters.

The city and union for Bellevue's part-time firefighters say the contract is legal and they want to abide by it. But an independent commission that oversees testing for firefighter applicants says the contract is illegal and refuses to operate under its provisions.

No matter what the city does, it could end up in court.

The union has threatened to sue if Bellevue doesn't enforce the contract, and the county attorney said he would take action if the city breaks the law.

The city, the Bellevue Professional Firefighters Association and the Bellevue Civil Service Commission are trying to work out the problem before it comes to that.

Meanwhile, Bellevue's fire chief is warning that the department's staffing is dangerously low.

“There are people's lives that could hang in the balance in the future,” Chief Perry Guido said.

In 2008 the Legislature required Bellevue to shift from volunteer firefighters to a paid staff. The Bellevue Fire Department is now staffed with part-time firefighters. The part-time positions earn less than full-time wages and also don't earn benefits.

Those firefighters want the first chance at any full-time job that might come open.

The city agreed, and that became part of the first contract between the city and the union.

But the Civil Service Commission says that provision breaks a state law that requires that all firefighter applicants have to be judged only on their “merit, efficiency and fitness.”

The hiring plan “violates the whole purpose of a Civil Service Commission,” said Mike McClellan, the commission's lawyer.

The city and the union say the part-time firefighters deserve the first chance to be hired.

“The bottom line is that we don't feel that the union contract that the city entered into violates” the law, City Administrator Dan Berlowitz said. “We're just trying to find a way where all parties can come to an agreement.”

Until the city receives a list of eligible firefighter candidates, it can't hire any full-time firefighters. That snag comes at a bad time for the city, whose need for full-timers has been growing steadily for months.

To be fully staffed, the department needs about 130 part-time firefighters. It has about 115, and there's a dearth of firefighters who can perform specific tasks or have specific credentials.

Bellevue has run into a problem because about 40 part-time firefighters have left for full-time jobs in Omaha and elsewhere. There aren't enough people willing to take part-time jobs to replace them.

That has led to uncertainty about whether they will be fully staffed each day, Guido said. For now, full-time command staff is filling in, and overtime in the past month has been double the average.

Guido wants to see a list of qualified candidates ready so he can start hiring as soon as the city finds the money. That's why Berlowitz asked the commission to get the process started earlier this year.

The hang-up arose when he asked the commission to create two lists of qualified applicants — one containing any part-time firefighters who applied and one containing all others who tested. The idea was that the city would hire from the first list until it went through all the internal candidates, then it would move on to the list of outside applicants.

Bellevue is trying to retain its best part-time firefighters as the department moves to a full-time staff, Berlowitz said.

"One of the difficulties of us transitioning to a full-time department gradually is that we have a lot of part-time people that we trained so that they're skilled,” Berlowitz said. “And we're losing those people to Lincoln and Omaha for full-time positions.”

But the commission says all applicants must be considered equally. A law meant to prevent nepotism lays out how the commission oversees testing for fire and police applicants.

Each firefighter applicant must take a test and is ranked by the commission. When there is an opening, the commission gives the city the names of the top three applicants. The city then chooses among those three.

McClellan said the commission is open to giving current firefighters some kind of edge over other candidates, but not at the expense of all others.

The City of Bellevue's move also angered Papillion, which was supposed to conduct firefighter testing with Bellevue two weeks ago.

Papillion City Administrator Dan Hoins wrote to Berlowitz asking him to reconsider because the city believes Bellevue's actions could violate state law.

Hoins said that because the fire chief picks part-time firefighters, those people should not be the only pool of applicants for full-time firefighters. He also questioned the potential for nepotism.

"Bellevue's proposed action circumvents the protections of the (law) in order to give preference to its hand-picked part-time firefighters,” Hoins wrote. “Moreover, it is my understanding that there is a direct family relationship between several of your part-time firefighters and current command staff members who will gain an unfair advantage over other applicants.”

Berlowitz ordered Bellevue to pull out of the process until the matter could be resolved.

The city's lawyer, Mark McQueen, said the part-time firefighters are doing the same duties as full-time firefighters, and that makes this case unique.

He pointed out that any part-time firefighter applicants would have to pass the commission's test before even being eligible for hire.

“There's a pretty strong argument that says they've earned the right to be first considered under these circumstances,” McQueen said.

County Attorney Lee Polikov said a commission member asked him to look into the matter.

Polikov said it does not appear that anyone has broken the law. But from a preliminary study, he doesn't think the idea of two separate lists is legal.

“If the law is in conflict with the contract, the law wins.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1084, roseann.moring@owh.com

Contact the writer: Roseann Moring

roseann.moring@owh.com    |   402-444-1084    |  

Roseann covers Bellevue and Sarpy County crime.

Nebraska's U.S. Senate candidates stick to familiar topics at Omaha forum
More Nebraskans are electing to vote early
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
8% of alcohol sellers checked in Omaha area last week sold booze to minors
OPS bus, SUV collide; no students onboard at the time
Waitress who served alcohol to teen before fatal crash gets jail time, probation
Lori Jenkins, charged as accessory in 4 murders, waives speedy trial
Iowa State servers hacked, nearly 30,000 SSNs at risk
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
2nd District House race: After 8 terms, Lee Terry knows how D.C. works — and doesn't
Bellevue man is killed at Minnesota dance hall after South Sudanese basketball tourney
Spring corn planting still sputters in Nebraska, Iowa, other key states
Nebraska banking and finance director to retire
19-year-old killed in one-vehicle crash at 72nd & Shirley
Gov. Heineman vetoes bill to ease restrictions on nurse practitioners
U.S. Senate race: State Auditor Mike Foley defends Shane Osborn against ad campaign
Public defender to represent Nikko Jenkins in sentencing
Mid-America Center on track for lower operating loss
Bluffs City Council approves dozens of new numbered street lights
National Law Enforcement Memorial Week set for May
Ted Cruz backs Pete Ricketts' campaign for governor
Omahan charged with 5th-offense DUI after street race causes rollover
2 blocks of Grover Street closed
Safety board report blames pilot error in 2013 crash that killed UNO student, passenger
Omaha man accused in shooting ordered held on $75,000 bail
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
The idea that Paul Hogan had studied and then hatched at his mother's table was that older people, rather than moving in with relatives or to an assisted-living center, would much prefer to stay home instead.
Breaking Brad: Into the claw machine! Florida kid follows Lincoln kid's lead
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a child climbed inside a claw machine. Hey, Florida kid: Nobody likes a copycat.
Breaking Brad: Even Chuck Hassebrook's throwing mud!
The Nebraska campaigns have turned so ugly, Democrat Chuck Hassebrook lobbed unfounded accusations at an imaginary opponent.
Breaking Brad: Kraft wiener recall is business opportunity for TD Ameritrade Park
Instead of returning the wieners, TD Ameritrade Park is calling them "cheese dogs" and charging double.
Breaking Brad: Photos with the Easter Bunny are so 2010
In a sign of the times, most kids ran out of patience waiting for a photo with the Easter Bunny at the mall, just snapped a selfie and went home.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Tokyo Sushi
$5 for $10 or $10 for $20 toward All-You-Can-Eat Sushi Purchase
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »