The town refuses to offer any type of contract to the firefighters that involves an increase in spending. And, the firefighter union countered by trying to establish the town is not in as dire financial shape as it claims.
Town officials and the fire rescue union presented their cases during an impasse hearing Friday, Sept. 17, at Town Hall.
The fire department’s current contract expired May 31, which means the department continues to operate on the status quo on a month-to-month basis until a new contract is reached.
Since impasse has been declared, a special magistrate is now being called upon to review proposals presented by both sides and make a decision that’s not legally binding.
Below are excerpts from the testimony provided to the magistrate:
“The town’s unfunded liability in the firefighter pension plan has grown from $70,000 to more than $13 million. We want a one-year contract that has the absolute right to re-open the pension at any time to address the issue.
“I think you will find our wages are very comparable, if not better than other municipalities. We had nine bargaining sessions, starting in June 2009. At the first session, we went through the economics that are now worse and said we are not going to spend any new money. Period. Because maintaining what we have is costing us a lot of money.
“We haven’t cut wages or laid off anyone in this department. We bargained over an extended period of time and started out by saying we would extend the contract three years. That was rejected and every time they made serious proposals, we would evaluate them. In February 2010, we declared impasse.
“The police signed a newly certified contract already. We had five discussions with them and have a signed three-year contract beginning Oct. 1 that is set for ratification.
“That contract provides no changes to the pension plan for current employees for three years. However, we have the flexibility to create a new pension plan for new employees. The police also agreed to eliminate their 401K match and keep cost-of-living allowances in their pension plan. They will receive raises only if other employees receive them.
“We think our position is fair. We are not happy with where we are and would like to do better. But the bottom line is we have obligations to our employees and to our taxpayers. We are willing to try to do better when things get better.”
— Town labor attorney Reynolds Allen
“Most impasses are declared when the town offers lower levels of increases and parties can’t reach agreement. This dispute is really a situation where the union position is the status quo and it’s the town’s position to reduce benefits, reduce the pension and freeze wages, with reserving the right to lower wages.
“The union has approached this process from a realistic standpoint. The union’s position holds the line on the budget. During negotiations, we signed off on all but six articles. The first argument is we are in a dismal financial future and the town has reduced property values and deficit spending. What you will learn is things aren’t nearly as bad. In spite of deficit spending, the town added $237,000 to its general fund balance last year. And they increased money in the unreserved balance the last two years. The town has also steadily dropped millage rates for years, which weakens your ability to claim the sky is falling.
“Firefighters contribute 40% of their payroll to the pension. And over the last several years, the town has asked for actuarial cost method changes and early-retirement windows to employees.
“From our perspective, the town invited everyone to dinner, were insistent they get to pick where they go, picked the most expensive restaurant in town and encouraged everyone to order lobster. And now that the check has come, the town is looking for someone else to pick up the check.
“In each change made to the pension over the years, there was a conscious discussion that a more expensive payday would come. The town is not in any immediate financial crisis and the union’s proposals are reasonable and the town’s proposed cuts to wages and benefits are not justified.
— Firefighter union attorney Jim Brantley
“I am a big supporter of these organizations. The proposals we have made, I believe, are very fair. Our position now is a one-year contract. The town made an effort to have a three-year contract. But since that’s not going to occur, we want the flexibility to review the issues again in a year.
“We are continuing to have higher costs just to maintain what we have. We see greater costs coming. I can’t commit to agree to an increase right now in any particular year. We have always been a good employer and will continue to do that. We don’t charge employees for medical and we have only laid off employees in the building department because demand for those services are lower now.
“I am looking out for all the employees. I will not lay off an employee in another department to give more to the firefighters. My goal in every budget is not to lay anyone off. Our goal is to hold salaries. I won’t recommend to the commission that we guarantee raises for firefighters when I can’t give them to my police officers and general employees.”
— Town Manager Bruce St. Denis
“I have never said the sky is falling. We are in reasonable, good financial condition. But if a hurricane were to destroy the island, the $5 million reserve fund balance would not even come close to what we would need to rebuild this island. The unfunded liability of the firefighter pension plan is currently $13 million.”
— Town Finance Director Tom Kelley
Contact Kurt Schultheis at [email protected].