No longer ‘us against them’: NHPD ratifies contract

After nearly two years of negotiations, New Haven Police Department officers ratified a five-year contract Wednesday night that boasts wins for both the union and City Hall.

The vote — which took place all day Wednesday at the NHPD’s Union Avenue headquarters — ratified a new deal between the city and the 413 unionized officers who have been working without a contract since 2011. The agreement includes several planned wage increases for the officers, but it also outlines changes to pension and health benefits that should help City Hall manage its finances in the long run.

The NHPD union, which has traditionally taken an oppositional stance to Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s administration, broke with its historical precedent in ratifying the contract by more than two-thirds of the vote, 247–109. Generous health care coverage and a 20-year retirement age have long been cherished by the officers, and losses on both fronts reflect a changing departmental attitude.

“There is some understanding [among those who voted to ratify the contract] that the current financial situation is not entirely controlled by the municipality,” said NHPD spokesman David Hartman, speaking only in his capacity as a department officer. “While there used to be a much stronger automatic opposition to the new contracts — it’s always been an ‘us against them’ type fight — for the first time we’re seeing an acceptance that the problems in these tougher economic times are not just the problems of the municipality.”

The Elm City continues to face a tight budget, and DeStefano has called for public employee pension reform consistently for several years: Previous City Hall estimates have projected that the Police and Fire Retirement Fund will empty its funds by- 2030. Under these conditions, union officials faced potential disappointment in arbitration — a traditionally labor-favoring conflict-resolution process wherein a third party legally mandates the terms of an agreement — and so they elected to compromise with DeStefano.

“We brought back the best package that we feel we could right now,” police union President Louis Cavaliere Jr. told NBC Connecticut Wednesday.

Despite the normally uncompromising NHPD union’s support, the new contract has not been received kindly by all outside observers.

“This is possibly the worst-negotiated public safety contract in the state,” New Haven Fire Department union President James Kottage told the New Haven Independent. “Their benefits have been eviscerated.”

The approved contract — which will begin retroactively on July 1, 2011, and will last until June 30, 2016 — will raise the pay of New Haven cops by 9 percent over five years while allowing the city certain long-term changes in health and pension benefits. Under the contract, officers’ pay will rise by 3 percent in the current fiscal year, 0 percent next year and 3 percent in the years 2015 and 2016, while monthly health premiums will rise for officers who retire after 2014. Instead of a flat $135 monthly health premium, all retirees will be required to pay the same premium they were paying at the time of retirement, with a 6 percent increase a year. Medical premiums will also increase by 7 percent for current officers.

The new contract will also reduce the number of annual sick days from 15 to 12. However, current police officers will maintain their right to retire after only 20 years on the job, which was one of the major points of contention with the city. The 20-year retirement benefit will not hold true for new police officers, who will have to spend 25 years in service before retiring under the new contract. New hires and current cadets will also be denied some of the benefits enjoyed by current police officers, Cavaliere said.

The new contract comes after months of uncertainty during which the police union seemed unable to settle on a contract with the city. Negotiations appeared to have hit a dead end, as the city pushed for pension and medical benefits concessions that Cavaliere described as “unfair” in August 2012.

A tentative agreement between the city’s police union and the city was reached two weeks ago, on Jan. 24, when Mayor John DeStefano Jr. called the deal “fair but competitive” in an official announcement.

“It will allow us to attract the best and the brightest to the New Haven Police Department by compensating them fairly, while saving the taxpayers of the city money,” DeStefano said at the time.

The New Haven Fire Department, currently engaged in contentious contract negotiations with the city, recently elected to enter binding arbitration in lieu of bargaining progress. Union President Kottage took to the radio Tuesday morning to convince the NHPD to reject their contract and join the NHFD in arbitration.

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