Councilors explain opposition to proposed firefighters' deal

New London - For three city councilors, there's nothing political about their "no" votes against a tentative agreement reached between Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and the firefighters' union that would save 25 jobs and change their retirement benefits.

"When Daryl spouts off that this is about political gains, I can tell you I'm not doing this for any political reason,'' said Councilor Marie Friess-McSparran, one of the three who voted against the tentative agreement earlier this month. "I'm trying to get to a place where it works for everybody. I have to weigh the needs of the city employees and the needs of taxpayers.''

The agreement, signed by the city administration and the firefighters, has been voted down twice by the City Council - both after 3-3 tie votes. Council President Michael Passero, who is a New London firefighter, has recused himself from discussing and voting on the contract.

Friess-McSparran and councilors Adam Sprecace and John Maynard have voted against the agreement, mainly because of the impact it would have on taxpayers.

After the council postponed a third vote on the proposed agreement, Finizio accused some councilors of unnecessarily delaying action and trying to negotiate directly with the union. In the past, the mayor said, councils always had approved contracts negotiated by the city manager.

If anyone is playing politics, Friess-McSparran said, it's the mayor. "Both Adam and I have made suggestions that would get them to a place where we could vote 'yes,' but those suggestions have just been ignored,'' she said.

Friess-McSparran said the agreement is just a "smoke screen'' that allows the city to address overstaffing and overtime costs in the fire department. "There's money for the jobs already in the budget and the overtime issues can be worked out. The tentative agreement has nothing to do with salaries for the jobs," she said.

Maynard also believes there is money in the budget to cover the firefighters' salaries without layoffs. "I have to laugh,'' he said. "It guess it's about politics, if that's what you call doing what's right for the citizens. I'm trying to do the job I was elected to do, and to do the best for the taxpayers. I have to focus on that.''

The agreement would in effect rescind layoff notices given to 25 firefighters in April and allow the union to enter the state retirement plan.

The union has agreed to about $1 million in concessions this year by giving up nine positions and two raises scheduled for 2012 and reducing mandatory staffing levels from 18 to 16.

In return, the city would not lay off any firefighters during the remainder of Finizio's four-year term and would bond around $4 million to offset the $14 million the firefighters need to buy into the Connecticut Municipal Employees Retirement System. The union has said the city's $4 million portion is an estimate and that union members will contribute more than $10 million from their 401(a) investments.

Maynard, Friess-McSparran and Sprecace have said they are not opposed to public safety workers joining a better retirement program but they do not want taxpayers picking up the $4 million tab, plus interest, that is needed to get them there.

'A smarter way to do this'

For three weeks Friess-McSparran has immersed herself in the tentative agreement and has emerged more determined to protect property owners' pocketbooks.

"I think there's a smarter way to do this so there's less impact on taxpayers, some who can't pay their mortgages, some who are working two or three jobs at minimum wage and don't have a retirement,'' she said. "I'm not saying they (the firefighters) don't deserve a retirement and I'm not saying it shouldn't happen. But the way it's been presented now, I find very difficult to agree to."

Friess-McSparran has suggested firefighters liquidate their 401(a) accounts and move into the city's pension fund, which is strongly funded, until the actual costs for the state retirement system can be determined. In the meantime, she added, the union members would be building up their contributions, further reducing the city's costs.

Friess-McSparran said she is also concerned with $354,000 in outstanding loans firefighters have taken against their savings. While the union has said all loans will be paid off by the workers, Friess-McSparran said a precedent was set when Deputy Police Chief Marshall Segar was let go and part of his severance package included a provision in which the he did not have to pay back a loan against his retirement savings.

Sprecace, the lone Republican on the council, said his major sticking point is the city's financial exposure year after year if the cost of contributing to CMERS increases.

The New London police union members are part of CMERS, and the rate the city contributes as of June 30 is 15.3 percent of gross pay. The state sets the contribution annually. Firefighters also would contribute 5 percent of their pay.

During his five years on the council, Sprecace said, the city's percentage contribution has doubled. A fair compromise, he added, would be for the union to agree to assume, or at least share in, any increase in the city's contribution during the life of the contract, perhaps through an adjustment in the projected pay raises.

"My problem is, it's been trending up. That's the basis of my concern,'' Sprecace said of the municipality's contributions. He said he cannot see a way out of the stalemate until the concerns of at least one of the three councilors is addressed.

"Like I've said all along, I'm not against a defined pension,'' Sprecace said.

Maynard said he cannot support the proposed agreement because of the $4 million cost to the city. He has suggested the firefighters join the city's pension plan, in which the city would have more control over annual contributions.

"This is the toughest decision I've had to make,'' Maynard said. "I like all the firefighters; they do a great job. It's not about the firefighters. Who else runs into a burning house when everyone else is running out? You have to respect and appreciate what they do.''

The city administration maintains the tentative agreement is solid and saves the city money by allowing the firefighters to get into the defined benefit pension plan, which in turn would encourage older and higher-paid workers to retire.

But for now, everyone is standing their ground. The issue is expected to come up at the Aug. 6 City Council meeting scheduled for at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

"If nothings changes, then my vote won't change,'' Sprecace said.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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