A nationally recognized attorney believes a Middleton fire agency is misusing public funds by paying for some of its employees to attend private union activities.
Clint Bolick, vice president and lead litigator for Arizona’s Goldwater Institute, told IdahoReporter.com Wednesday the Middleton Rural Fire District is wasting money by gifting taxpayer money to union officials.
“It is a gift to a private entity,” Bolick said. “It’s being diverted to a private agency.”
Bolick isn’t a scrub attorney with an opinion to share. He led and won Goldwater’s own lawsuit against a similar arrangement in Arizona. In agreement, the judge said master contract clauses giving special perks to union officials do not serve a public purpose.
Middleton, preparing to ask district taxpayers for a two-year, $670,000 supplemental levy override next Tuesday, allows union firefighters to take a combined 96 hours of overtime to attend private union conferences, events, seminars and other confabs.
The master contract, the binding document setting wages, benefits and working conditions for firefighters, also mandates the district fund union officials’ salaries during labor negotiations. There’s no set amount of time allotted for that and there’s no cap for that expense, either.
Bolick said that funding arrangement presents a conflict of interest, because public employees are supposed to negotiate with taxpayers in mind. When taxpayers fund union officials’ time, they are paying for labor negotiators to do the bidding of organized labor, which might not be in taxpayers’ best interest.
“That seems to be irreconcilable and a misuse of public funds,” Bolick said.
The expenses might also be unconstitutional. The Idaho Constitution prohibits governments from gifting certain items to private agencies. The Idaho Freedom Foundation is suing the Boise Independent School District over a similar arrangement in its master contract.
District Chief Brad Trosky has ignored two IdahoReporter.com emails asking how the union perk aids public safety within the district boundaries. Commissioner Tim O’Meara wasn’t aware of the union perk and said he had not read the master contract.
But not all Middleton fire staffers are silent on the topic. John Filler, a Middleton firefighter and a local union leader, defended the perk in a Facebook post Tuesday.
Here’s what he wrote:
I would like to explain something to everyone in the Middleton Rural Fire Protection District. The 96 hours that Dustin points out is used to attend labor managment relationship seminars, and conventions. This is to improve and foster the working relationship between the Board of Commissioners and the Union. This time in the past was used to take all three commissioners to Fire Ops 101, it also lets one of our members be active in the Fire Fighter Cancer Support Network, and yet another to participate in the Idaho Honor Guard like when he went to Weiser for the Volunteer Chief Officer who lost his fight with cancer. There is nothing secret, no gift, nothing wasteful, there is a pool of money (96 hrs) which affords the district and the Union the ability to build working relationships with each other. Team building not in fighting, pretty sure this is a major benefit for you the tax payers. Thank you for all of the support the citizens have shown us in these times.
While charity work might be noble, Bolick said taxpayers hand over money for public safety services and nothing else.
“You can’t simply give public money to the Salvation Army, much less labor unions, just to perform good works that are under the control of the private organization,” Bolick explained.
It would be an entirely different scenario if the fire district expressly and explicitly contracted with a charity for certain and approved services, he added.
This is the second time the district will ask for more taxpayer cash in the past year. In November, district voters killed an identical measure by a 10-percent margin.
Fire officials say the district may return to an all-volunteer crew if the levy fails again.