On Tuesday night the Town Council unanimously ratified the collective bargaining agreement, ratified by the West Hartford Police Officer’s Association on June 6, giving West Hartford Police a contract for the first time in five years.
By Ronni Newton
After a host of issues during the past five years had impacted negotiations between the Town of West Hartford and the West Hartford Police Officer’s Association on a collective bargaining agreement, a contract, effective from June 30, 2013-June 30, 2021, was unanimously approved by the Town Council on Tuesday night.
The agreement had been ratified by the West Hartford Police Officer’s Association on June 6.
Executive Director of Human Resources Rick Ledwith, who outlined the new contract to the Town Council Tuesday night, explained that the previous contract had expired on June 30, 2013, and detailed why it took so long to negotiate a new agreement.
While the town and police union were negotiating the successor agreement in 2013, the union brought up an issue that was of concern to them about a contract that went back to 2006, Ledwith said. According to the town, anyone hired after 2006 would be subject to a pension that would have overtime excluded if they had worked less than 30 years. “The union felt they had not agreed to it,” Ledwith said. The town disagreed.
Ledwith said that both parties who had negotiated that agreement had since retired, but were brought back for questioning, and both were in disagreement. The impasse led to a discussion with the town’s Public Safety Committee and the town manager at the time, and a decision was made to bring it to arbitration, Ledwith explained.
After more than a year, the arbitrator ruled in August 2016 in favor of management, Ledwith said, and the parties sat back down to negotiate. Then they ran into state’s fiscal crisis and the possibility that West Hartford would be losing $20 million in state aid, “so that made negotiating any type of wage increase very challenging at that point when we could have been $20 million in the hole,” Ledwith said.
Once there was greater confidence that the town would be receiving money from the state, negotiations improved and in late March/early April of this year the parties came to the current agreement. Before it as presented Tuesday night, however, the contract was carefully reviewed, line-by-line, to make sure terms would be clear in the future.
“We do feel we are in good place this evening,” Ledwith said, to talk about wages, pension and healthcare reform, sick pay at retirement, and light duty – some of the notable changes in the contract.
Prior to the vote Tuesday, Town Manager Matt Hart told We-Ha.com that his priorities for the agreement included that it be fair to both the town and the police, be favorable in comparison to other police contracts in the state, and include changes to pension, healthcare, and other compensation so that they “are competitive but set the town up for the future to be able to manage its liabilities.”
Hart said he believes the new collective bargaining agreement achieved all of those things.
“I thought this was an important issue to resolve because we wanted some economic certainty,” Hart said. The ability to recruit and retain officers was also important, as was removing the negative impact on morale resulting from years of operating without a contract.
Hart said he wanted Chief Vernon Riddick, who was sworn in on May 29, to be in a position to succeed, and at the same time have a package that would be manageable for the town and result in longterm savings. “I think our team has been able to achieve that,” Hart said.
Police have not had a raise in five years, and Ledswith said that the new contract provides on average a 2 percent annual wage increase, retroactive to 2013.
“Right now we’re hiring police officers on a Step 1 wage from 2013,” Ledwith said, a salary of $60,000 per year, while Simsbury, Glastonbury, and Farmington all pay $65,000 for an entry level officer. “This is going to bring us right up to where our competitors are … will allow us to continue to recruit the high quality officers,” Ledwith said. As of July 1, 2018, the pay for a entry level officer will be $67,000.
Retroactive payments will be made through a single check, Ledwith said, and those who have retired will also get the retroactive increase.
The money budgeted by the town in its contingency is adequate to cover the raises, Ledwith said.
For the pension plan, the new contract includes a three-tiered system: Tier I for those hired prior to 2006, Tier II applies to those hired between Aug. 1, 2006 and June 26, 2018, and the third tier applies to anyone hired after the date of ratification.
Pension benefits are unchanged for Tier I. The pension for Tier II is based on the average of the highest three years of earnings calculated, plus 50 percent of overtime in those years. For Tier III, the pension multiplier has been reduced from 2.5 to 2 percent times the years of service, and no overtime is included in the calculation. Addition of the third tier will reduce future liabilities by approximately 35 percent, Ledwith said.
Councilor Dallas Dodge asked how the revised pension plan compares to other communities, and Ledwith said that it is not something communities in the immediate area have done yet.
Deputy Mayor Beth Kerrigan asked if there is concern that there will be less incentive to work overtime, and Ledwith said that officers will still be paid for overtime, it just won’t be calculated in their pensions.
Councilor Leon Davidoff asked how many police department members are in the Tier I census, and Ledwith said there is roughly a 50/50 split between Tier I and Tier II. “There are 12-13 openings,” Ledwith said, “so 10 percent of the workforce will be under this new plan [Tier III] and potentially another 10 percent in next year.”
Other changes to the contract include that new officers will not get any sick leave payments at retirement. They will still accrue sick time and be able to use it, but not get paid at retirement for what was not used. Other nearby communities do not yet have this provision, which wipes out a major liability, Ledwith said.
Negotiated changes to the healthcare plan will result in significant savings in the future, Ledwith said.
New hires will only be able to have benefits through a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP), with a deductible of $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for families. The town will contribute half of that amount into the employees’ Health Savings Account (HSA).
This will “yield significant savings as we move forward,” Ledwith said.
In addition, new hires will pay a percentage of the premium for benefits, rather than a percentage of the employees’ wages. There are also changes in the co-payment requirements for existing employees who have coverage through a PPO.
New hires will also pay 50 percent of the premium for retiree health care once they are retirees – an increase from paying about $35,000 in premium to anywhere from $300,000 to $400,000.
The new light duty policy is something the town has been trying to get for 30 years, and will help employees remain more engaged when dealing with a disability. “This keeps them here working, and studies show they come back sooner,” said Ledwith.
“We should all be proud of the work you guys did,” Councilor Liam Sweeney said.
“We really want to thank our West Hartford Police Officer’s Association for their collaborative efforts working on a contract,” Ledwith said. He also thanked officers for working without a contract for the last five years.
“There had to have been such frustration, we knew there was, but there was never a compromise in service to the public,” Mayor Shari Cantor said.
Hart urged support for contract. ”It was negotiated in good faith … and really positions us for the future.”
Republican Council member Chris Williams said he has voted against every labor contract he has seen in the three years he has been on the Council. “But I think the police are different and that we sit in these Public Safety meetings and we’re a small town but we have big city problems … and we have unbelievably great police,” he said, indicating his plans to support the contract.
Minority Leader Chris Barnes said he wavered in consideration of the agreement, but agreed with Williams that the exception is the police force because people need to feel safe. Elimination of sick leave pay at retirement, increasing contributions, creating this Tier III for new hires are all important steps. “We’re moving in the right direction,” Barnes said.
Mary Fay said it’s tough to afford, but the police should be compensated for working all those years without a contract “There’s nothing more important in our community but to keep us safe,” she said.
“I think this agreement here leaves a framework for moving forward,” said Davidoff, noting that everyone is “almost all on the same page that things are not sustainable.”
Davidoff said it’s important to recognize the efforts of town employees and to understand that there’s just so much that people are able to pay.
“Mr. Williams hit the nail on the head: city style with village charm, but we have a lot of city problems,” Cantor said. The town values the quality of service that the police department gives to residents, and this has been really painful, she said, but there has been significant progress made.
The contract passed unanimously.
Ledwith told We-Ha.com earlier in the day that he is in the beginning stages of negotiations with multiple other bargaining units, including the fire department which has an agreement that expires on June 30, 2018, and other unions that had contracts expire on June 30, 2017.
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