Judge rules firefighter ordinance illegal

A judge has ruled that a 1985 Altoona ordinance allowing firefighters to purchase their military time so it counts toward their retirement is illegal because it conflicts with state law.

The decision by President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva does not bar the purchase of military time, but it will end up costing firefighters substantially more than it would under the 28-year-old city ordinance, according to Altoona attorney Daniel Stants, who represented the city in its lawsuit.

Kopriva overturned a 2012 decision by arbitrator Timothy Tietze, who ruled on behalf of firefighter Brian Palko and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 299 that because city ordinance 4894 had been in place so long, it was actually part of the collective bargaining agreement between the city and its firefighters. Palko remains an active firefighter.

Stants said the ruling wouldn’t impact many firefighters, but city Fire Chief Tim Hileman said it will apply to a dozen or more.

The president of the local union, Bryson Peterman, said about 20 firefighters on the Altoona department are veterans and could be eligible to buy their military time.

He said there are possibly only five who currently could buy their time and retire, but eventually the decision could affect a third of the department.

Peterman, a hoseman on Engine 311 and six-year veteran of the department, said the procedure to purchase military time in the fire department has been in effect for 42 years, and the 1985 ordinance came about because it was recommended by the Fire Pension Board and approved by a 5-0 vote by City Council.

The issue has been a matter of discussion between the union and city officials for many months prior to Kopriva’s decision this week.

Peterman said the buyback of military time began in 1970. At that time, veterans could pay $30-per-month to count their military time toward their years of service for retirement.

When it came to the Vietnam-era veterans, the calculation was changed so it would cost the veteran 5 percent of the top rate of a hoseman to purchase his time.

Former City Councilman Ted Beam, who is now a county commissioner, noted in a 1985 letter that he supported an ordinance since the buyback procedure was permitted for police officers.

The city’s legal challenge to the procedure “is really a slap in the face to those who served in the military and then chose to give the rest of their lives in public service to the fire department,” Peterman said.

The union president said the firefighters have cooperated with the city in reducing costs, saving the city almost $1 million in health care expenses.

The city, which is operating under distressed status, is now attempting to implement even more programs to lower costs, he said.

Stants said that under the 1985 city ordinance, a firefighter could purchase his military time for the amount of money the retirement would have cost him had he been working with the department during those years.

Under the third-class city code, the firefighter must pay not only his retirement contribution but also the city’s contribution plus interest.

For one firefighter whose example resulted in the court case, the buyback cost would go from about $9,000 under the city ordinance to an estimated $16,000 under the third-class city code.

Kopriva ruled that the terms of a military buyback are outlined in the third-class city code, which was passed by the state legislature.

She said a “municipal ordinance cannot be sustained to the extent that it is contradictory to … a state statute.”

Because the City Council had no authority to enact the 1985 ordinance, the purchase of military time for retirement purposes cannot be subject to collective bargaining, the judge stated.

She concluded the third-class city code “completely pre-empts” the city ordinance.

Union attorney Stephen J. Holroyd of Philadelphia has informed the union it has until Aug. 13 to decide if it wants to appeal.

Holroyd, in a text message to Peterman, said he believes the judge misinterpreted the law by indicating the military buyback issue cannot be a matter of union-employer negotiation.