STAMFORD – Wednesday offered a tale of two meetings.
Under the pressure of a state deadline, special meetings were called to decide whether to approve the city’s costliest union contracts for police and fire services.
The votes went in opposite directions.
At 2 p.m., the Board of Finance, which acts as an advisor to the Board of Representatives on bargaining agreements, voted unanimously to recommend that the police contract be rejected, as it had done earlier with the firefighters contract.
But, at 6:30 p.m., the Board of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to approve both collective bargaining agreements.
Since the Board of Representatives is the deciding authority, the city has a new four-year, $3.2 million deal with the Stamford Police Association; and a six-year, $11.9 million pact with the Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association.
Most of the cost of the firefighters deal, $7.4 million, covers retroactive wage increases given that the union has not had a contract since 2019.
Sharpen the pencil
Finance board members took a hard line on the contracts brought to them by the office of Mayor Caroline Simmons.
Negotiators should take another look at the costs, said Republican board member Dennis Mahoney.
“The administration needs to go back and sharpen its pencil. I worry that the city is not adequately representing constituents in these negotiations,” Mahoney said. “It’s like the city is worried about the next few years, but not the future … people are struggling to pay their taxes and living expenses; we need more focus on that.”
Fellow board member Laura Burwick, a Democrat, agreed.
“You look at the amount of health insurance provided, the low co-pays, the pension benefits – you have to factor those in when you’re looking at the percent wage increases being proposed,” Burwick said. “These are extraordinarily generous contracts.”
The deals are “too generous,” said Democrat Mary Lou Rinaldi, the board vice chair.
“Understanding that 80 percent of the city budget is salaries, we have to be sensitive to the cost in outlying years, and remember the people who have to pay for this,” Rinaldi said. “As a fiscal board we have to … determine what we can really afford.”
Redefinition of disability
Board members said they applaud negotiators’ efforts to remedy what has long been considered a flaw in the police contract – it allows officers to retire on disability pensions if their injuries are determined to have caused a 30 percent loss in function. City Human Resources Director Al Cava said the result is that a whopping 125 officers are out on disability pensions, many at relatively young ages, which has “put a big strain on the pension funds.”
Under the new contract, officers will be eligible for disability pensions only if they are deemed permanently disabled, Cava said. In exchange, the city agreed to a cost of living adjustment of 1 percent a year for officers 65 and older who retire after at least 20 years of service.
“I appreciate the effort to get a handle on the disability pensions, but I don’t agree that the tradeoff should be a cost of living adjustment,” Rinaldi said. “Other unions don’t have that, and to give it to one implies we’d have to give it to everybody. The cost of that would be tremendous.”
The cost of living adjustment compounds, said the finance board chair, Democrat Richard Freedman, and negotiators did not provide a clear estimate of what it will end up costing.
“It’s not a flat pension. It’s an increasing pension. That math, from the fiscal position of the city, is absolutely brutal,” Freedman said. “For that reason alone, I can’t support a positive advisory for this contract.”
Burwick said she was surprised that the police contract came before the board as it did.
“I have a list of things I would have liked to have known, such as the cost of benefits for the spouse of a retiree,” Burwick said. “There was no opportunity to ask questions about how the numbers work.”
What’s the rush?
City representatives who met that evening had the same complaint.
“With the magnitude of these contracts, it seems as if we don’t have time to digest it,” said city Rep. Carmine Tomas, a Democrat. “But we’re supposed to vote this evening. How did this happen?”
Cava said state statutes governing municipal labor relations give legislative bodies up to 44 days from the date an agreement is reached to approve or reject it. If the body does not act, the agreement automatically becomes binding, Cava said.
The clock runs out shortly after next week’s Thanksgiving holiday, Cava said, which is why special meetings were scheduled.
City representatives, like finance board members, had questions about the cost of the police contract but were more satisfied with answers provided by Cava, the city’s hired labor lawyer Gabe Jiran, and Director of Administration Ben Barnes.
Representatives liked that the new police contract caps workers’ compensation time at 240 hours a year. It’s almost unlimited under the existing contract, Cava said. That increases overtime costs because when officers don’t come to work, their replacements most often fill in for them at time-and-a-half pay.
Officers don’t like being ordered to stay beyond their shifts to fill in, Police Chief Tim Shaw said.
“It takes a toll mostly on young officers. Because of seniority rules, they do a lot of the holdover shifts,” Shaw said.
Same contracts, different takes
Despite lingering questions about costs, only three representatives voted to reject the police contract. Twenty representatives voted to approve it, and seven abstained.
The representatives’ vote was roughly the same on the firefighters contract, even though finance board members so strongly opposed it that they rejected it last week without allowing the chiefs to return Wednesday to answer questions.
Finance board members were most critical of a provision that will double the number of deputy chiefs, and their aides, on duty at any given time. Now there are four deputy chiefs and four aides, one set for each daily shift. Under the new contract, four more deputy chiefs and four aides will be added to allow two sets per shift.
Stamford is the only large Connecticut city that has only one deputy chief on duty at a time, Acting Chief Rex Morris said. The role is critical because deputy chiefs take command of fire and other incidents, manage all responding companies, plan the best way to attack a fire or carry out a rescue, and ensure safety at the scene, Morris said.
During the finance board meeting, Cava said it would cost $1.1 million more each year. But that does not include overtime, benefits or pension costs, Freedman said. He also criticized the firefighters union for not agreeing to reduce wage increases, as other unions did during the financial uncertainties created by the pandemic, and for not switching to the cheaper state health insurance plan earlier.
Freedman limited Morris’s explanation of the need for extra deputy chiefs, asking for more financial analysis instead.
‘I support this’
Wednesday evening the Board of Representatives asked extensively about the need for the extra positions. They read into the record a letter by firefighters union chief Paul Anderson, who rebutted Freedman’s characterization of firefighters’ actions during the pandemic and the decision to join the state health plan.
Firefighters were first responders to medical calls and worked holdover shifts throughout the pandemic, and did not get COVID bonuses awarded to teachers and other city employees, Anderson said. The switch to the cheaper health plan didn’t happen because the city let the expired contract languish for four years, he said.
In this contract, firefighters made a major concession – they agreed with the city’s request to remove the position of fire marshal from the union, Anderson said. Cava said the city requested it because the fire marshal’s office is a department within the fire department, and the manager should not be in the same bargaining unit as those being managed.
City representatives had many questions, but most came to the conclusion expressed by city Rep. Jim Grunberger.
“The city is growing,” said Grunberger, a Democrat. “The fire department needs to grow as well. I support this contract.”
Finance board members stressed that they are worried about the high cost of union contracts because bills are piling up for the city and taxpayers.
The school district wants $9 million to continue funding 120 positions paid for with federal COVID-19 relief money that runs out next year, they said. The city and school district have a $1.5 billion plan to rebuild or renovate 18 schools, and the intent is to raise taxes each year to set aside money for it. Finally, tax bills will already be higher this July because the second phase of the property revaluation kicks in, they said.