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MATTOON -- The city has filed a lawsuit against Mattoon Firefighters Local 691 regarding a state arbitrator ruling last month in favor of the city's plans to eliminate the fire department's ambulance service.

On Friday, the city filed a petition in Coles County Circuit Court to confirm an arbitration award. Union President Bart Owen wrote Sunday night on the Mattoon Fire Department page on Facebook that the city is suing over the implementation of an April 18 arbitration award. Owen said this award gave the city the option to remove the ambulances from the fire department and to "impact bargain" the result of the award.

"The city asserts that the union is not complying with the arbitration because an agreement has not been reached on the removal of the ambulances," Owen said.

Arbitrator George Fitzsimmons made his April 18 ruling on a grievance that the union filed after the Mattoon City Council voted on July 18 to eliminate the fire department's ambulance service as a cost savings measure. City officials have said that this service loses money and duplicates the work of the two private ambulance providers operating in Mattoon.

The union has countered that the fire department's ambulance service generates revenue and provides essential ambulance coverage for Mattoon. The union filed a grievance on July 19 with the Illinois Labor Relations Board accusing the city of violating the firefighters' contract by attempting to subcontract out their work to private ambulance providers.

In his ruling on the union's subcontracting grievance, Fitzsimmons said the contract authorizes the city to "eliminate, relocate, transfer or subcontract work" and the contract also requires the city, in eliminating ambulance services, to comply with the Substitutes Act. He said the Substitutes Act does not prevent the employer from eliminating ambulance service.

"The Substitutes Act only prevents employers from using unqualified personnel outside the bargaining unit as temporary or permanent substitutes for bargaining unit firefighters. The union has failed to prove that the employer violated a specific provision of the contract," Fitzsimmons said.

The city's court filing on Friday asks for a judge to enter an order of enforcement compelling the union to abide by the arbitrator's award. City Administrator Kyle Gill said on Monday that the city has taken this action in an effort to expedite implementation of the council's vote to eliminate the ambulance service. He said none of the union's contract negotiation offers have included eliminating the ambulance service.

"We are still operating under a deficit budget and we have got to make changes," Gill said.

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Owen said on Monday that he considers the recent court filing to be a petty action on the city's part. Owen said he believes that this action is unnecessary because city and union representatives were already scheduled to meet on June 12 for a contract bargaining session.

A different state arbitrator, Gil Vernon, ruled on April 9 in favor of a grievance that the union filed in May 2017 about the city having 26 firefighters on staff instead of the 30 required by the current contract. The arbitrator ruled that the city must bring the fire department's staffing levels back up to 30 firefighters in compliance with the current contract.

Gill said the union is seeking $220,000 in back pay from the city for the vacant firefighter positions as a punitive remedy following the arbitrator's ruling on the staffing level grievance.

Owen said the $220,000 is an approximate figure, adding that the arbitrator will determine how much the city might need to pay as a punitive remedy. He said the fire department's staffing has now dropped to 22 firefighters, and the union hopes the grievance and punitive remedy process will help spur the hiring of new firefighters to fill vacant positions.

The current contract was scheduled to expire on April 30, but will remain in place until the city and union reach a new pact. City and union officials have said the arbitrator's ruling on the staffing level grievance will not apply to the new contract.

Owen said, on Facebook, that the union has been in negotiations with the city over the successor contract since Jan. 1. He said the union believes that the best option for providing the high standard of care that Mattoon residents have come to count on is for the fire department to continue its ambulance service. He said the union has offered to once again reduce staff and to cut expenses to meet the city's monetary goals.

"Our union has made no successor contract offers that do not include the ambulance service that we feel the citizens of Mattoon deserve. We refuse to voluntarily give up on something we believe in passionately," Owen said.

The council voted to eliminate the fire department's ambulance service by May 1, 2018, but the city has kept the ambulance service in place as the city and union go through the contract negotiations and grievance processes. The city has budgeted for continuing to operate the ambulance service and for having up to 30 firefighters on staff in 2018-19.

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Contact Rob Stroud at (217) 238-6861. Follow him on Twitter: @RobStroud

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