PINOLE -- The city is appealing an administrative law judge's decision effectively ordering the reopening of the Pinole Valley fire station, with more than two years back pay for lost firefighter wages and benefits.
The ruling could cost the city $1.4 million, according to the firefighters union.
California Public Employment Relations Board Judge Donn Ginoza's ruling on an unfair labor practice complaint by United Professional Firefighters Local 1230 said Pinole acted unilaterally when its City Council decided in March 2011 to close Station 74 in July of that year to save money.
It amounted to a staffing decision and thus was subject to negotiations with the union, the judge ruled. Negotiations on a new labor contract for fiscal year 2011-12 ended in late July 2011, after the station closed and four months after the council made the decision to close it, he said.
In his Nov. 27 ruling, Ginoza ordered the city to "cease and desist from its unilateral action, restore the status quo that existed at the time of the unlawful conduct, and make employees whole for lost wages and benefits, plus interest of 7 percent per annum."
Station 74 is one of two in the city. The other, Station 73, is downtown. Pinole's municipal department is part of the three-agency Battalion 7, along with the Contra Costa County and Rodeo-Hercules fire districts. All three agencies' firefighters are represented by Local 1230, as are El Cerrito, Moraga-Orinda and East Contra Costa firefighters.
The ruling does not quantify the back pay owed or spell out other logistics of complying. But Vince Wells, president of Local 1230, said the union interprets the ruling to mean Pinole must reopen Station 74 and pay for lost pay and benefits going back to the date of the unilateral action, which he estimated at $1.4 million.
Pinole City Manager Belinda Espinosa said she has not computed what the back pay would be. She said the city will argue that there were staff vacancies and that the city should not have to pay firefighters for hours they did not work while the station was closed. She said the city fully satisfied its obligation to meet and confer in good faith with the union on the effects of closing the station.
The labor contract that expired June 30, 2011, contained a clause mandating a reversion at the conclusion of its term to a staffing level of 18 -- equivalent to three shifts of three firefighters at each of two stations. Pinole's firefighter ranks were down to 14 at the time, the result of attrition.
Wells said the judge's ruling means that for each day since the closing, the city would have to pay for six firefighters on each shift.
"There was a time when we had 14 firefighters. That meant we had two shifts with five and one with four," Wells said. "We believe that anytime we had less than six, they owe the overtime to bring us up to six per shift." Espinosa said she expects a decision on the appeal to be at least six months away.
In the meantime, she said, "We are at the table with Local 1230. We're trying to come to a consensus how we compute the lost wages and benefits."
Station 74 remains closed, pending the appeal. Reopening it would be further complicated by a state Department of Parks and Recreation finding last year that the city built the station on parkland in violation of a federal parks grant that helped acquire Pinole Valley Park.
Contact Tom Lochner at 510-262-2760. Follow him at Twitter.com/tomlochner.