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On Tuesday New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, facing an effort by the firefighters' union to obtain an injunction blocking planned layoffs, agreed to suspend his administration's plan to immediately discharge 25 city firefighters. The administration should use this opportunity to reopen negotiations with the union and pursue adjustments to the concession agreement necessary to win City Council ratification.
If the council and administration were far apart on what constitutes a fair concession deal, then Mayor Finizio's aggressive efforts to achieve necessary savings through layoffs would be understandable. But it appears that the gap is not large and that a path to an acceptable deal can be found fairly quickly. We welcome this pause in the dispute. And regardless of any court action, we urge the mayor to keep firefighters on the job while renewing the concession talks.
Cutting firefighter staffing so dramatically, while still obligated to meet minimum staffing requirements, is a step that the city should take only if there is no other way forward. The city is not at that point. The layoffs would mean firefighters working multiple shifts, increasing fatigue and the errors that can flow from weariness. It is a danger exacerbated by the heat of summer.
Mayor Finizio sought to curb fire department expenditures on the premise that the current level of spending is unsustainable. In the resulting concession agreement both sides got things they wanted. Firefighters would move from their current 401(a) plans into the Connecticut Municipal Employee Retirement System (CMERS), a goal the union has long had. Mandatory staffing levels would drop from 18 to 16 per shift. Trimming those staffing levels has been a city objective. Positions will be eliminated through attrition.
The administration expects more savings when veteran firefighters retire once they are in the CMER system. Firefighters are giving up raises of 2.25 percent this month and 2 percent in January, but will also see their contract extended with 2 percent raises in mid-2013 and again in 2014 and 2015.
The deal stalled, however, when the administration fell one vote short of the four council votes necessary for ratification. (Michael Passero, the council president, has rightfully abstained from the process because he is a city firefighter).
Adam Sprecace, the lone Republican on the seven-person council, tells us his major sticking point is the city's financial exposure if the cost of contributing to the CMERS increases. Now 15.3 percent of gross pay, the state sets the contribution annually and it has been rising in recent years. The solution would appear to be for IAFF Local 1522 to agree to assume, or at least share in, any increase in that contribution during the life of the contract, perhaps through an adjustment in the projected pay raises.
Councilor Marie Friess-McSparran is concerned that the long-term costs to the city will not justify the short-term savings produced by early retirements and reduced staffing requirements. She is particularly concerned with the administration's plan to bond $4 million to enter the union into CMERS. The city needs $14 million to "catch up" and begin utilizing the state pension plan for municipalities, with $10 million transferred from the existing 401(a) plans. Repaying the bond over 20 years will end up costing taxpayers $8 million, she said, eating up savings.
We suggest the council consider a resolution that would require the administration to use any savings in the fire department - if it finishes in the black due to the expected early retirements - to go towards expediting the repayment of the bond, lowering interest payments.
The bottom line is that there should be a way for the administration, working with the union, to make the adjustments necessary to find the added vote necessary to ratify the concession deal. Councilors are not villains for raising legitimate concerns. And it is not good policy to disrupt the lives of firefighters and their families through layoffs unless no other options exist.
More diplomacy and less drama are in order.