AR Firefighters Seek Ruling on Promised Salary Increases

Conway firefighters have sued the city seeking money for salary increase they were promised as a result of increased sales tax.

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Conway, Ark. Jan. 29–Attorneys representing local police and firemen are asking a circuit judge to find the city of Conway at fault and declare it liable for money that police and fire department employees were promised but reportedly did not receive for a number of years.

A motion for summary judgment was filed in circuit court in December and, on Thursday, attorneys representing the city of Conway were granted more time to respond to the request made by plaintiffs in the matter.

The lawsuit stems from a Conway City Council-approved quarter-cent (0.25 percent) sales tax that was to be used "exclusively to the salaries of the employees of the City of Conway," according to the ballot resolution that was passed by Conway voters in August 2001. Employees allege they did not receive money they were promised.

A formal complaint regarding the unpaid monies was filed in 2012, and in December 2015, Circuit Judge Troy B. Braswell gave the green light for the case to move forward as a class-action lawsuit. During the 2015 hearing, Braswell also struck down the plaintiffs’ argument that money was illegally spent on the city’s behalf for other purposes rather than improving police and firefighters’ pay.

The certified class includes about 200 police and fire employees that were employed with the city between Dec. 1, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2012. Attorneys representing the city’s police and firemen argue a summary judgment is necessary and appropriate because dispositions of parties involved in the suit "clearly show that there are no genuine issues of material fact."

The city should be held liable, attorneys Thomas Thrash and Russell Wood said, because it was "contractually obligated to pay its police officers and firefighters in accordance with the pay scales adopted by the city council on December 1, 2001" but did not do so.

According to the recent motion for summary judgment, they city distributed the same pay grid to employees prior to hire and others already employed and told each the grid represented their salaries.However, the motion claims employees were not compensated accordingly.

Several employees, agreed to take the initial pay cuts working for either the Conway police or fire department because there was more money promised in coming years.

"Unfortunately, the City ended up breaking its promises," the motion for summary judgment reads in part. "Although the City for a number of years made good on its pledge to honor the mandatory, and ‘automatic,’ step raises, it refused in 2010, 2011, and 2012 to approve yearly salary increases pursuant to the Pay Grids for Police Officers and Firefighters."

The step raises were to be paid for through the 0.25 percent sales tax increase passed in August 2001 by Conway voters because "police officers and firefighters [were] being cherry picked by higher-paying departments in the Central Arkansas area," according to a statement by former Conway Mayor Tab Townsell.

"This impacted public safety, given that the loss of ‘better trained employees to other departments’ made it necessary to ‘backfill them … with less trained’ personnel," Townsell reportedly admitted during a disposition with the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

An investigator with the Conway Police Department said during a disposition that he was assured he would receive a higher pay in accordance with the step grid, which "played a major part in [his] decision to accept the job."

A Conway firefighter also said he "relied on the pay scale when making [the] decision to accept the employment offered by the City of Conway … or [were] subject to the pay scale after [their] hiring and relied on said pay scale to continue employment," according to a disposition affidavit.

Since the step-grid sales tax was adopted 17 years ago, it "has generated annual revenues in the millions … accounting for over $3.2 million in 2012 alone," according to court documents.

Several employees "have over time expressed frustration that Conway has defaulted" on its promise and have sent letters and emails to city officials regarding the matter through the years.

The plaintiffs assert they believe the city "will attempt to excuse its failure to make yearly step increases by claiming that the raises were conditioned upon the ‘availability’ of funds." However, "the funds were available," according to the motion for summary judgment.

Thrash told the Log Cabin Democrat that claims against the city are estimated at more than $2 million. Last month, a mediation to attempt to reach a settlement was held in Little Rock. However, the city did not agree to settle the matter and now the case will continue to trial later this year.

"The city did not agree to settle the case, therefore, the case is going to trial," Thrash said.

Defendants in the matter have until Feb. 22 to respond to the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, per an order signed Thursday by Judge Braswell.

A hearing before Braswell is currently scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. April 23, and a week-long jury trial is set to begin on May 6.

___ (c)2019 Log Cabin Democrat, Conway, Ark.

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