West Hartford Firefighters Local 1241 and the town of West Hartford are headed to binding arbitration with the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration over the latest collective bargaining agreement.
The firefighters union agreement expired on June 30, 2012 and the two sides were not able to come to terms for a new agreement. Pensions and health care are the two major sticking points in the two sides’ inability to reach terms.
At the heart of the issue is the town’s pension obligation, a problem which Mayor Scott Slifka said would not be resolved in a year or two years but much longer.
Currently, the town is funding its pension obligation at about 40 percent of where it should be, Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said at the Town Council meeting on Tuesday.
Slifka said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the town has fully funded its annual pension obligation, but that it has lost a significant amount of revenue in the last decade due to market fluctuations. Furthermore, retirees have been living longer, meaning that pension benefits are being paid out for a longer period of time, Slifka said.
The combination of investment losses and the longer payouts for retirees on packages agreed to decades ago has led to the current situation, Slifka said.
All of which leads back to the firefighters’ contract. The firefighters pension is currently to receive 2.5 percent of their salary multiplied by their years of service, according to the Hartford Courant. That would mean that a firefighter with 10 years’ service would get 25 percent of his or her salary upon retirement until his or her death.
"That is a generous benefit," Van Winkle told the Courant. "It is not uncommon in public safety … it is much larger than what a non-public safety employee would get."
The town’s goal is to reduce its liability in the area of pensions by getting all bargaining units to switch to a hybrid pension to a defined contribution plan, Van Winkle said at the Town Council meeting on Tuesday. The firefighters rejected the hybrid pension option, according to the Courant.
While the two sides are at odds over the content of the next collective bargaining agreement, both Slifka and union President Kerry Warren agreed that that the situation is unfortunate, although for perhaps different reasons.
Slifka said that the union’s position shows a lack of willingness to work with the town over the pressing issue.
“Unfortunately, the town can’t fix this on its own,” Slifka said. “But [the union doesn’t] want to talk about it.”
Slifka said that the firefighters union is the only collective bargaining unit in town that is not willing to make concessions in the area of pensions. Every other bargaining unit, including the police union, has done so, Slifka said.
Additionally, Slifka said that the town’s fire department, while doing great work, is “too big, too expensive and too cumbersome.”
“We’ve tried to, for a long time, take steps to make [the fire department] more affordable and easier to manage from the chief’s perspective,” Slifka said. “Unfortunately, the union does not appear interested in doing that. … This is not a criticism of their work. We have a fantastic fire department in terms of performance. The problem is size and affordability.”
The mayor and members of the town council have reached out to the union’s leadership and rank and file members, with initial positive results, only to be rebuffed at the bargaining table, Slifka said.
“It’s disappointing and it’s demonstrative of how hard it can be to make changes to long-term liabilities, even if the political will exists,” Slifka said. “It is mutually beneficial to have the best fire department we can and to have the town afford it.”
But Warren - the union president - disagreed that the firefighters have been unwilling to make concessions.
As an example, Warren said that in 2010, when the 6-year collective bargaining agreement ran out, the union agreed to a two-year extension in which the unit agreed to salary givebacks to help the town deal with a difficult economic climate.
“The members of [the union] are disappointed that we haven’t reached an agreement with the town,” Warren said. “We certainly want to bring a level of service to the town at a cost that is affordable to everyone.”
But Warren also said it was unfair to say that the firefighters union was the only one not cooperating with the town, as different bargaining units have differing requirements.
“Public safety needs to be different than paraprofessionals,” Warren said. “The town doesn’t want 65-year-old firefighters. It’s a rigorous job with many hazards. To compare [firefighters] to paraprofessionals is [all right] in some situations, but in many instances it’s not.”
Warren also disagreed with Slifka’s assessment that the fire department is too large.
“I would vehemently argue that point,” said Warren, who added that the level of staffing has been reduced since he joined the department in 1998. “[Slifka] hasn’t backed that up with studies. It’s contrary to industry standards of a town of West Hartford’s size. It’s one man’s opinion that’s not based on fact.”
Perhaps, but there is also some mistrust between the two sides, Slifka said, dating back to the October 2011 snowstorm.
Slifka said that during that time, the firefighters union filed two grievances against the town as residents still struggled with massive power outages. Even though the union withdrew the grievances, Slifka said that relations are still strained.“It set an awfully bad tone for this process,” Slifka said. “We’ve been concerned ever since that the union was putting the union’s interests first over the town’s.”