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Ohio police, firefighters decry bargaining limits

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Cleveland partrolman Henry Steel, 21-year Cleveland veteran, talks about the effects Senate Bill 5 Thursday, March 31, 2011, in Cleveland. Cleveland partrolman Henry Steel, 21-year Cleveland veteran, talks about the effects Senate Bill 5 Thursday, March 31, 2011, in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND (AP) — Unlike Wisconsin's high-profile effort to limit collective bargaining rights for public workers, Ohio's new law includes police officers and firefighters — who say it threatens the safety of them and the people they protect.

Opponents have vowed to put the issue on the November ballot, giving voters a chance to strike down the law. The firefighters' union in Cleveland plans to hit the streets and help gather signatures.

Patrolman Michael Cox, a 15-year veteran of Cleveland's police force, said Ohio overlooked the inherent risks of police and firefighting work when lawmakers included them in the bill, which passed the Legislature on Wednesday and was signed into law by Republican Gov. John Kasich on Thursday.

"We don't run from the house fire; we don't run from the gunshot," Cox said. "We're the guys that got to say, 'OK, we're going to go fix this problem real fast.'"

Under the Ohio plan, police and firefighters won't be able to bargain with cities over the number of people required to be on duty. That means they can't negotiate the number of staff in fire trucks or police cars, for instance.

Supporters of the bargaining limits say decisions on how to equip police and fire departments should be in the hands of city officials, not union members.

"Shouldn't it be the employer who decides what's safe and what's not safe?" said state Rep. Joseph Uecker, who was a police officer in the Cincinnati area for 15 years. "Don't you think they are the ones who should decide whether they should have one or two or three people in a car? That's what we call management rights."

Cleveland police Officer Anthony Sauto is recovering after a bullet that pierced his leg a few months ago during a night shift on the west side of town. The wound will heal, but he worries that patrolling the streets will be even more dangerous when he returns to work.

"That's my No. 1 concern," Sauto said. "We put our lives on the line."

The 350,000 public workers covered under the law can still negotiate wages and certain work conditions — but not health care, sick time or pension benefits. The measure also does away with automatic pay raises and bases future wage increases on merit.

Wisconsin's measure covers 175,000 workers but exempts police and firefighters.

Kasich has said his $55.5 billion, two-year state budget counts on unspecified savings from lifting union protections to fill an $8 billion hole. He defended the new law Thursday night.

"This bill, Senate Bill 5, does not cut anybody's salary. This bill, Senate Bill 5, does not take away anybody's pension. This bill, Senate Bill 5, does not destroy anybody's health care," Kasich said. "And anybody who's been out there saying that is just factually wrong."

In northeast Ohio, fear that a loss of bargaining will result in layoffs and further cutbacks is rippling through the law enforcement community.

One of the biggest worries is one-man patrol cars, said Steve Loomis, president of the city's local police union. Under the current contract, Cleveland police officers are required to have at least two officers in a patrol car when driving through certain neighborhoods, Loomis said.

After Kasich's signature on the bill, Democrats have 90 days to gather more than 230,000 valid signatures to get it on the fall ballot. Loomis believes that if Senate Bill 5 goes unchallenged, the two-man rule will be the first thing to go.

"They're going to give up our safety for the illusion that there's more police on the street," Loomis said. "That's horrifying. Guys get killed."

And equipment that police officers say is vital but that the city says is too expensive — like computers in patrol cars, a rarity in Cleveland — will be harder to get without the complete bargaining process, Loomis said.

State lawmakers did make last-minute changes to the measure in the House that allow police and fire officials to bargain for vests, shields and other safety gear.

Mike Norman, secretary for Cleveland's local firefighters union, said that's a cold comfort compared with what he called an "all-out assault" on the union.

"Changes to the game supersede the topics that we're allowed to discuss," he said. "This isn't something that needed to be tweaked a little bit."

As Cleveland's population has declined in the past decade, so have its ranks of police officers. Two rounds of layoffs have left the police force more than 300 officers smaller since 2004.

The street crimes unit, which used to investigate prostitution and gambling, is no more. The auto theft unit was also disbanded. And a city that stretches 22 miles along Lake Erie no longer has a single police boat to patrol its own waters; that job is now left to the Coast Guard, Loomis said.

The fire department has lost more than 200 members and closed five companies since 2004. City Public Safety Director Martin Flask said all furloughed police and fire employees have been recalled to duty, but he acknowledged that staffing levels have declined in recent years.

"What this bill is going to do," Loomis said, "is allow bean counters and people who have never walked a step in our shoes, sitting behind a mahogany desk, to make decisions on our safety."

The office of Mayor Frank Jackson did not respond to requests for comment on the police and firefighters' complaints.

Like other public employees, law enforcement officials are also worried about things like rising health care costs. Youngstown firefighter Dave Cook, 43, thinks it will be tough to attract qualified candidates to the dangerous profession if health care costs go through the roof.

"Who's going to come into a police or fireman job when the starting pay is $24,000 a year?" he said. "What type of recruits are you going to get?"

On his way to work Thursday morning, Cleveland police Officer Henry Steel said most officers would support the effort to repeal the bill. But at work, he said, it will be business as usual.

"We're all professionals," he said. "We're going to do our job, period. We're going to do our job. We may not be too happy about it."


Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Ann Sanner, Julie Carr Smyth and JoAnne Viviano in Columbus, and John Seewer in Toledo.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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