After three years, finish line in sight for firefighter contract

After three years of negotiation, a tentative oral agreement concerning a new 5-year contract has been reached between the city of New Haven and the local firefighter union.

The potential contract — which addresses issues related to health care, pension and mandatory staffing — is “in the final inning” of completion, said firefighter union president James Kottage. Still, he noted that some problems related to the language of the contract must be resolved before it is enacted. City Hall Spokeswoman Anna Mariotti, said that it would be premature to label the finalized negotiation as anything more than a tentative agreement.

“It is [currently] not a contract, it is not legal, it is not voted on, it is not in effect,” Mariotti said.

Some of the tentative agreement’s more notable aspects deal with pension reform, health care coverage and mandatory staffing. Mariotti could not comment on the specific amount saved under the new contract. Kottage explained that the union was firmly against any tier policy in which some members would receive more benefits than others.

“Everyone currently, young and old, senior and not senior, would have the same benefits,” Kottage said.

Though retired firefighters will not have changes in their pension plans, future firefighters will have their pensions reflect the base pay and will feel a large brunt of the cost cuts.

The tentative agreement also outlines a shift in health care coverage from conventional preferred provider organization (PPO) to a healthcare savings account (HSA), according to city officials. Under the new plan, individuals would be responsible for managing their funds rather than using a co-pay system, as is currently in place. The HSA will be partially funded by the city through deductibles and if enacted, the firefighter union will be the first union in New Haven to have all active members under this type of plan.

Finally, if the tentative agreement is passed, mandatory staffing levels will shift from 73 firefighters on duty to 72. Since this change will be implemented across four divisions, it will yield a net decrease of four firefighters and will save the city around $560,000, Kottage said.

“We do think that the tentative agreement is good because it is fair to workers but it also helps save the city money,” Mariotti said.

However, unless a consensus can be reached in the next couple weeks on some unresolved phrasing and terminology throughout the contract, the negotiation risks going in front of a panel of arbitrators who would then hand down a ruling at the end of November or early December.

As for meeting an exact deadline, union vice-president Frank Ricci said that the union will continue working with the city to ensure the terms of the written contract reflect the oral agreement.

While Kottage and Mariotti describe the contract as “fair” given the tough economic times, the three-year negotiation has not been“Sometimes things get a little personal … when the time [came] to make tough decisions, you know, it felt like the mayor backed away from the fire service a little bit,” Kottage said. Still, he noted that the union endorsed DeStefano in the previous election and that they have always maintained a good relationship with the mayoral office.

Mariotti said that the tentative agreement is comparable to similar contracts that have been reached with the firefighter unions in the past, such as the one between the city and the police department from March of this year. Firefighters are the primary focus, but the contract also focuses on ways the city can cut costs in pensions and healthcare.

After the contract wording is finalized and approved by both negotiating parties, the next step will be to inform union members about the details, Kottage said.

“Once they are educated, I believe it will pass by a large margin,” he added.

The previous firefighter contract, which gave way to the current contract negotiations, expired on June 30, 2011.

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