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Middleton fire spending item likely unconstitutional

Middleton fire spending item likely unconstitutional

Dustin Hurst
May 12, 2015
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May 12, 2015

A provision in a Middleton Rural Fire District master contract funding union business is likely unconstitutional.

A public records request released to the public revealed the district agreed to fund 96 hours of overtime pay for unionized firefighters in its rank to attend private union functions, conventions, conferences and seminars.

District Chief Brad Trosky did not answer an IdahoReporter.com request asking how the funding for union activities keeps Middleton families safe.

The 96 hours of overtime for private union business in addition to time off the district grants to union negotiators to collaborate with the fire agency’s oversight board in writing the master contract. The district and union officials meet every two years to write the agreement, though it can be amended other times.

The district and union last signed a contract on June 10, 2013. That agreement expires June 30.

Using taxpayer money to fund union business isn’t uncommon, though it is fairly controversial.

The Idaho Freedom Foundation filed a tort claim against the Boise Independent School District last year over its contract provisions funding paid union release time for teachers. The school district also funds a replacement teacher for the union president to conduct private business.

The school district ignored the claim.

At least one other group has fought these arrangements. An Arizona court ruled in January 2014 governments there cannot fund union activities. Judge Katherine Cooper agreed with the libertarian Goldwater Institute that the union perks didn’t serve a public purpose.

Good government watchdogs have been banging this drum for a while. “These bans were intended to protect taxpayer interests by erecting a wall of separation between government and private economic interests,” wrote the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Trey Kovacs of constitutional provisions preventing governments from gifting taxpayer funds to private entities.

“It’s time to rebuild that wall – and high,” he added. “All government expenditures should further public purposes and provide tangible benefits to states or municipalities, not simply hand out favors to special interests.”

The Idaho Constitution boasts a gift clause, which serves as the foundation for IFF’s tort claim against the school district.

Here’s the language from that document:

Section 4.  COUNTY, ETC., NOT TO LOAN OR GIVE ITS CREDIT. No county, city, town, township, board of education, or school district, or other subdivision, shall lend, or pledge the credit or faith thereof directly or indirectly, in any manner, to, or in aid of any individual, association or corporation, for any amount or for any purpose whatever, or become responsible for any debt, contract or liability of any individual, association or corporation in or out of this state.

But at least one district official wasn’t aware of the union provision or the constitutional language prohibiting the practice.

Fire Commissioner Tim O’Meara said he was not aware of the gift clause language when approached Monday by IdahoReporter.com.

O’Meara also said he believed the district isn’t doing what its master contract says it is. “I don’t think we are funding union business,” O’Meara said. “But you are happy to bring it up at the meeting.”

He also said he hadn’t read the agreement, which also sets firefighter salaries, working conditions, insurance benefits and retirement provisions.

“No, I haven’t read every file,” he said. O’Meara wasn’t on the oversight board when commissioners signed the contract.

Patty Foster, a Middleton resident and district supporter, told IdahoReporter.com Monday she is OK with the expense.

“I'm very comfortable with this expense,” Foster wrote in an email. “I don't feel it is being spent *in the name of safety* Our firefighters do a lot more for the public than just save lives.”

While the money might not fund public safety, Foster believes unions serve a purpose in Middleton.

“Unions are as important to FF as they are to most any occupation,” she added. “We need someone to attempt to protect ALL of our jobs--which with this levy--insures (sic) public safety.”

The Middleton Rural Fire District will ask taxpayers to fund a two-year, $670,000 levy override. District officials say the agency could revert to an all-volunteer department if voters don’t approve the measure.

Proponents, led by the Friends of MRFD, believe families and homes could be at dire risk if the levy fails.

Note: The Idaho Freedom Foundation publishes IdahoReporter.com.

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