After over a year of negotiations, city officials and New Haven Police Department officers must soon agree on a contract.

For over six months, since the New Haven Police Union’s last contract expired June 30, 2008, the over 400 officers of the NHPD have been working without a contract, delaying the implementation of recent Police Executive Research Forum report recommendations released in November 2007. Though negotiations for a new contract began one year ago, the city and the union have yet to come to an agreement and will be forced into arbitration.

Wednesday, New Haven City Hall spokesman Jessica Mayorga told the News that the New Haven Police Union, Local 530, and the city have entered binding arbitration. The Connecticut Municipal Employee Relations Act prohibits police from striking at any time or for whatever reason. When the two parties cannot agree on a contract, both sides submit their best offer to a panel of arbitrators, which then sets the contract terms.

The parties are scheduled to meet with the arbitration panel in the beginning of February, Mayorga said.

One of the sticking points in the negotiations has been over the officers’ medical plan. Frank Lombardi, the vice president of the union, expressed frustration that city representatives want officers to pay more out-of-pocket expenses, such as higher co-pays and deductibles.

“We felt we did the city a big favor by taking the medical plan we have now,” he said, referring to the contact signed in 2004.

City officials involved with the negotiations, however, have said the tough economic conditions will forced cutbacks.

In a interview with the News at the end of October, NHPD Chief James Lewis said, “It’s not an easy time to get a new contract, because most cities, New Haven included, are hoping to cut back some of the pension benefits, cut back some of the health benefits. At the same time, they don’t have a lot of money to give for raises, so there’s that building conflict between the two.”

Richard Epstein, the chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners, said the lack of a contract has not disrupted the department’s day-to-day operations.

It has, however, prevented Chief Lewis from implementing some of the changes he had hoped to make in response to the PERF report, such as a performance appraisal system. Lewis said he hoped to rewrite almost all the department’s policies, which he said are old and outdated. Many of those policy changes require approval by the union.

“They’re not necessarily inclined to do some of that at the same time they don’t have a contract,” Lewis said in the October interview.

This contract negotiation has already taken much longer than it took for the two sides to reach their last agreement. The NHPD officers’ previous contract was signed November 5, 2004, just over four months after their prior contract expired.