Brainerd to pay $3.9 million to firefighters terminated in 2015
The Brainerd City Council approved a settlement agreement with the Firefighters Union Local 4725 Monday, Aug. 15, 2022. The firefighters will not be reinstated.
BRAINERD — The city of Brainerd must pay $3.9 million to five former full-time Brainerd firefighters, according to a settlement agreement.
The City Council approved the agreement with the Firefighters Union Local No. 4725 after a closed session Monday, Aug. 15. The settlement comes after the council dissolved the firefighters union in 2015, resulting in the five men losing their jobs. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in 2019 the city’s actions in restructuring the fire department and dissolving the union violated state labor laws.
“It’s been a long, hard-fought case over nearly seven years, and we are pleased that we finally reached a favorable resolution,” said Marshall Tanick, a Twin Cities attorney representing the firefighters union.
The summary settlement agreement approved Monday calls for the city to pay the full mediation fee along with the $3.9 million. Legal counsel for both parties have yet to determine how the money will be paid. Those details will be included in a final settlement agreement that must go before Crow Wing County District Judge Patricia A. Aanes. That action is expected to happen within 30-60 days. The firefighters will not be reinstated, though that was an available remedy if they so chose.
City Council members reconvened their closed session Monday night to approve the summary agreement 6-1, with council member Gabe Johnson opposed. Johnson declined to comment on his vote until Judge Aanes signs off on the final agreement. There was no discussion on the matter during the council’s open meeting.
City Administrator Jennifer Bergman said Tuesday $2 million of the settlement will be covered by the city’s insurance through the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, as will the legal fees and mediation fee. The city must come up with the remaining $1.9 million. Bergman said council members will work over the next couple weeks to determine where that money will come from.
The agreement, she added, was negotiated between both parties and allows the city to continue operating its fire department as a paid-on-call department. This structure has successfully exceeded the city’s operational and service goals over the past several years, Bergman said.
The agreement also prohibits any future legal action from either party on the case.
“So the settlement really ends the possibility of additional prolonged litigation that might result in additional costs and was reached in the best interest of, I think, both parties,” Bergman said.
Tanick said it was clear from the Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision that the city made a grievous mistake in eliminating the union and its members, which was life-changing and career-changing for the five firefighters.
“And we’re glad that they were able to receive some degree of compensation for the losses that they’ve suffered,” Tanick said.
Attorney William Everett, who represented the city in the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
In 2010, because of a budget deficit, the City Council began discussing restructuring the fire department, which was a mix of full-time and paid-on-call firefighters at the time.
On July 6, 2015, the Brainerd City Council approved a motion to notify the International Association of Firefighters of the city’s intent to move to a paid on-call department. Local 4725 is a local chapter within the association. The city then began negotiations with union representatives on the restructuring.
Previously in January 2015, the city and the union negotiated and signed a new three-year collective bargaining agreement covering the full-time union firefighters, but not the non-union paid on-call firefighters. Six months later, however, the city informed the union in writing of its desire to restructure the fire department to save money by eliminating the full-time positions.
The intent to move to a paid on-call department came on the heels of the loss of a service contract with Crow Wing Township, the third such loss in a year. In 2014, the city of East Gull Lake and Fort Ripley Township both terminated their service agreements with the fire department. In a letter dated Dec. 3, 2015, Maple Grove Township informed the city it would be leaving the fire service district, effective Dec. 31, 2016.
On Sept. 21, 2015, the city council approved a resolution restructuring the Brainerd Fire Department to a fully paid on-call department. The resolution passed on a unanimous vote among council members Gary Scheeler, Mary Koep, Dave Pritschet, Gabe Johnson, Sue Hilgart, Chip Borkenhagen and Kelly Bevans. As a result, full-time equipment operators Mark Turner, Cory Zeien, Kevin Tengwall, Kurt Doree and Lance Davis lost their jobs with the city.
Along with rising costs, council members at the time cited response times and the need to buy new equipment as the reasoning behind their decision.
Firefighters Union Local 4725 and President Mark Turner — one of the full-time firefighters — sued the city in January 2016 , asserting the city participated in unfair labor practices and violated various laws with the restructuring.
A district court decision originally ruled in favor of Brainerd, but the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling. The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals ruling in 2019, sending the case back to district court for a decision on a remedy.
Judge Aanes granted several motions for summary judgment on behalf of the firefighters union in March 2022, stating the firefighters were entitled to be reinstated and seek monetary damages from the time of the dissolution in 2015 through 2023, the date to which the union’s future contracts would have extended.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at email@example.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .