Stamford Board of Finance Tells Simmons Administration to Find Savings for New Contracts


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STAMFORD – The city’s fiscal watch dogs were not happy.

They had called out three union contract settlements for being “too generous” and wanted the city to return to the bargaining table, so they advised the Board of Representatives to reject them.

But representatives approved them. 

It is not a surprise then that the six elected members of the Board of Finance did what they did at their December meeting.

When city administrators came before them to ask for the money to cover the costs of the wage increases – $11.9 million for the firefighters union; $3.2 million for police; and $541,000 for city supervisors – they said no.

The finance board holds money in reserve, anticipating that expired contracts will at some point be settled with wage increases. But what was negotiated exceeded what was reserved by $1.69 million, finance board members said.

So they refused to allocate it. They told city administrators to comb through their operating budget and find $1.69 million.

“The administration is assuming we will take this money out of the fund balance. That is not acceptable,” Board of Finance Chair Richard Freedman told Director of Administration Ben Barnes, Office of Policy and Management Director Elda Sinani, and other city officials.

“The administration needs to look somewhere else for some of this money,” Freedman said. “I’m not going to tell you where it’s going to come from – you figure that out. The way it’s being proposed right now is we are looking to transfer money we don’t have. We didn’t reserve it. We’re taking money from some other use and putting it toward these contracts.”

The contract with the city supervisors’ union, the MAA, expired only a few months before it was settled, so the total amount of retroactive wage increases was lower than the other two contracts, Freedman said. The MAA settlement exceeded its reserve by $90,000, he said. 

The police contract settlement covered two years, so the total amount of retroactive pay raises was larger, Freedman said. The settlement with police exceeded the reserve amount by $200,000, he said. 

But negotiations for the firefighters contract dragged on for four years. So the amount of wage increases that must be paid retroactively is in the millions. The settlement with the firefighters’ union exceeded the amount held in reserve by $1.4 million, Freedman said.

One reason for the excesses is that, in setting aside money to eventually cover the costs of new contracts, city officials assumed annual raises for firefighters would be 1 percent, Freedman said. But the administration settled the contract at 1.75 percent annual wage increases, he said.

“Nobody ever, ever came to this board with these costs … we had no idea,” Freedman said, his voice rising. “I mean, why do we have a Board of Finance? Why are we even doing this? Let’s just go home and do something else.”

He wasn’t the only finance board member who was angry.

“Certainly the administration and the negotiating team knew what we had in reserve, and they still negotiated wage increases above and beyond what we had. That’s irresponsible,” Vice Chair Mary Lou Rinaldi said. “I am not going to approve funding for money we don’t have … I am not going to approve any of these items until the administration comes back and tells us where we are going to find this money.”

Board members were irked further by a request from Sinani to transfer $1.5 million from the city’s fund balance to the contingency fund, which is used to cover unforeseen events and emergencies. A notation beside the $1.5 million request read that it was “driven by a higher than anticipated wage increase impact from recent union contract settlements.”

So the request was to use money set aside for cleaning up snowstorms and floods to instead pay for wage increases.

It was one of the things that spurred board member Dennis Mahoney to say he is “ringing the three-alarm fire bell” on how the contract settlements were handled.

“The city was not talking with the finance board and the excuse is, ‘We were in negotiations,’” Mahoney said. “But you knew you were going to spend almost $2 million more in payroll. You could have told us.”

Administration and elected officials “have to hold ourselves to account,” he said. 

“The only way to do it is to impose budget discipline,” Mahoney said. “The city needs to begin to assess … where have we hired new people in the last two years? Which positions can we leave unfilled? How can we reorganize for better efficiency? We are six volunteers; we are not going to find the savings. The heads of the departments know where they can cut their budgets [so] it will affect residents the least.”

Barnes, the director of administration, is a member of Mayor Caroline Simmons’ cabinet who oversees Sinani’s Office of Policy and Management and other departments involved in finance.

Barnes told board members that “failure to act on additional appropriations puts the administration in a difficult position because we have binding contracts with unions that we are required to pay out in a timely way.”

If the board “would like us to identify alternative sources for those funds, we will endeavor to do so. But I don’t think we should withhold payouts,” Barnes said. “The executed contracts are binding on the city; we owe them the money.” 

There’s no disagreement on that, finance board member Geoff Alswanger said.

“We fully intend to meet the obligations of the city,” Alswanger said. “We’re asking the city to find where the money is going to come from.”

Freedman asked Barnes whether his office had enough money in the salary accounts to cover one pay period. 

Barnes said yes. The new raises aren’t set to go out until the second pay period in January, and the retroactive wage increase payments are scheduled for March, Barnes said.

“I don’t think a month will make that much of a difference,” Rinaldi said. “We want to force the city to come back in a few weeks and tell us how you are going to pay for this.”

“I would prefer we do it in the right order, but I understand your position,” Barnes said. 

Board members then voted unanimously to hold the funding requests until their Jan. 11 meeting.

This story has been updated to clarify the duties of Ben Barnes in the Simmons administration.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.