STAMFORD — Three months ago, the city’s Board of Representatives, at the request of Mayor Caroline Simmons, created a new holiday.
Juneteenth is the oldest continuous commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, according to the ordinance establishing June 19 as a day off for city employees.
The history of the holiday begins on Jan. 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all enslaved people in Confederate states to be free, according to the ordinance.
But many remained enslaved for two and a half more years.
It was true nowhere more than in Texas, where few Union troops ventured during the Civil War to enforce Lincoln’s proclamation. So slavery proliferated.
About 250,000 people were still enslaved in Texas in June 1865, two months after the war ended, when Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston to force slaveholders to set people free. It started a celebration.
To add to the jubilance, Granger’s soldiers were joined by several regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops, sent by the Union Army to guard against Confederate resurgence, according to the Juneteenth Legacy Project. Thousands of Black soldiers worked to ensure that slaves in Texas were freed.
Juneteenth was established as a national holiday in 2021. Now Stamford has declared it a city holiday.
So this June 19, most municipal employees – which total 3,300 according to the city’s most recent financial report – will have a day off. Only those “actually necessary to maintain the good order of the city shall work on that day,” the ordinance states.
That means mostly police officers and firefighters. And it means they will earn overtime pay.
The cost became clear Thursday night, when members of the Board of Finance were asked to approve an appropriation of nearly half a million dollars from the city’s contingency fund to cover the overtime costs.
Finance board members said they support the Juneteenth holiday, but they balked at the lack of planning for how to pay for it.
According to Simmons’ request, her administration needs an additional appropriation of $493,509.
Most of the money, $238,599, is to cover overtime pay for firefighters; $194,910 is needed for police officers.
Finance board members told Elda Sinani, the administration’s director of the Office of Policy & Management, they wanted details about how the city could minimize the cost of the holiday, especially since the board postponed its decision on the request last month in hopes of getting more information.
“I asked at the last meeting whether we were able to suspend some services on that day to reduce costs, especially since this was not budgeted,” board member Laura Burwick said.
“Most of it is police and fire – those are the most essential overtime work hours that I am obligated to pay because I need to comply with the legal, binding document, which is their contract,” Sinani said.
Not enough effort?
Other costs are much less, Sinani said. The request is $23,613 for overtime pay for garbage and recycling collectors, for example. Dispatchers in the 911 emergency center would need $12,270 for overtime for the day, and those who operate the wastewater and sewage plants would require $10,029.
Another finance board member, Dennis Mahoney, said it’s not clear that the budget was “scrubbed” for savings.
“I would like to have seen more of an effort to … skinny down that overtime number. I would like to have seen the city say … where can we find some existing savings in our budget … to offset some of the costs?” Mahoney said. “And I don’t get a sense it’s anything other than we just want you to give us the $500,000 and you don’t really have much of a choice.”
Sinani said she doesn’t want to end up before the Connecticut Department of Labor or the Equal Employment Opportunity Office or the Commission on Human Rights & Opportunity with union complaints that the city failed to pay overtime rates.
“This is a holiday, so I am obligated as a city to pay these employees,” Sinani said. “So all I am asking the board is to consider to transfer from contingency $493,509 to the budget.”
It’s irresponsible to establish a holiday then come to the Board of Finance 10 weeks before it and ask for the money, board member J.R. McMullen said.
“Everybody has come before us and said, ‘Well, we passed it, so you have to approve it.’ I don’t think that’s the way it works,” McMullen said. “I have a problem with the Board of Representatives and the administration coming to the Board of Finance with a gun to our head and saying, ‘We didn’t really think this through all the way; we didn’t make it so that it was effective within the next budget, we just decided we’re going to pass this and now we need to go forward and you need to approve the funds.’”
His concern is that it’s for a holiday this time but there will be another time when it will be something else, McMullen said.
“What is to stop them from signing some contract … that forces our hand to approve other monies? This is potentially the beginning of a pattern of, ‘Well, we know you’re the Board of Finance, but since the mayor and the Board of Representatives decided to do it, we want to go open the budget that was already passed” to get more money, McMullen said.
“And it’s not like when this was before the Board of Representatives and when the mayor proposed it that people weren’t asking, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ If they wanted to do it they should have identified funds that were already available to them to support it,” McMullen said.
Process ‘very wrong’
Finance board member Geoff Alswanger said the city should be in a position to manage the holiday costs on better terms.
“I’m not against the Juneteenth holiday … but I don’t know that the intent was to create a financial windfall for public safety,” Alswanger said. “Could the clock be rewound, I would say everyone is getting a day off, and those we need to work to serve the public safety will be paid for that day and may get an additional vacation day. But nothing more than that.”
Finance board members asked Human Resources Director Al Cava whether the city could have negotiated better terms with the police and fire unions. Cava said that, generally, contracts say that if the Board of Representatives were to adopt a new city holiday, it would be treated like other holidays.
That means lots of overtime pay.
Mahoney and McMullen, the two Republicans on the finance board, voted against the half-million-dollar appropriation. The four Democrats supported it, but some added comment.
“I vote yes, but begrudgingly,” Alswanger said.
Burwick said the same.
“It’s unfortunate that … a holiday was created without the ability for the Board of Finance to weigh in,” Burwick said. “I would like to have seen either a swap with another holiday, or some sort of agreement with the unions for another day off in lieu of the pay. But we are where we are.”
Board Vice Chair Mary Lou Rinaldi agreed.
“We’re all holding our nose on this,” Rinaldi said. “It’s the process that was just very wrong.”
With approval from the Board of Finance, the fund request goes to the Board of Representatives, which meets at 8 p.m. May 1. View the meeting here.