For First Time in Decades, West Hartford Town Council and Police Approve Contract in Advance

West Hartford Town Hall. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The West Hartford Town Council on Monday night unanimously approved the contract ratified by the West Hartford Police Officers Association.

By Ronni Newton

In a historic move, the West Hartford Town Council and the West Hartford Police Officers Association have completed negotiations and approved a contract in advance of its expiration.

With the Council’s unanimous 8-0 approval Monday night, the contract that was due to expire on July 1, 2021 has now been extended, with modifications indicated below, through July 1, 2024. Council member Mary Fay was absent.

Executive Director of Human Resources Rick Ledwith told We-Ha.com before the vote that he had gone back through records of the past 40 years, and there had not been a single contract with the Police Officers Association agreed to in advance of expiration.

“I think it’s really a reflection of Vern’s leadership and Matt’s leadership,” said Ledwith, referring to Chief Vernon Riddick and Town Manager Matt Hart.

Ledwith said the discussion between the parties began “off the record” in November, and meetings continued into December. The process was wrapped up before the holidays.

Hart told the Council when he introduced the contract for vote Monday night that the goals of the negotiation were:

  1. Controlling costs with the understanding that residents have been hurt in a negative way financially from the pandemic; and
  2. Being able to continue to attract “the best and brightest to our police department” and retain the officers who have worked for the department for many years, or, in some cases, decades.

From a cost perspective the goal was to be fair and equitable, Hart said, and from the town’s perspective the goal was also to negotiate “something that allows us to control our costs over the next couple of years.” He expressed his thanks to his colleagues and the members of union who agreed to negotiate this contract.

This is absolutely a statement of cooperation and collaboration by management and the police department, Ledwith said Monday night, to attract and retain officers but also to come to an agreement that was “fiscally prudent, that we could bring to our Council and the taxpayers.”

All three wage increases are below average settlements, Ledwith said, noting however that there is little history of wage negotiations post-pandemic.

During the negotiation, conversations focused on the fiscal challenges the town is facing, but at the same time recognizing the sacrifices officers have made on the front line during the pandemic. “We did feel we agreed to a contract that provides us with the financial concessions … but also gives our officers a modest raise,” Ledwith said.

In addition to wage increases of 1.0% as of July 1, 2021; 1.5% as of July 1, 2022; and 2.0% as of July 1, 2023, the new contract contains a “super step” which adds 5% to the top step for every Tier 1 police officer who works an additional year(s) beyond 20 years between date of signing and June 30, 2024. Tier 1 employees are those hired prior to Aug. 1, 2006.

The super step will expire in 2024.

When contracts are coming up for renewal, those who are eligible for retirement are more likely to decide to retire, Ledwith said. Within the next year there are roughly 30 officers who would be eligible for retirement, 15 of them eligible by the end of December.

“I’m hoping we will get four of five to stay,” he said, the more the better. Depending on the number who do remain, the estimated fiscal impact is $25,000.

Union members ratified the contract on March 17. There are approximately 120 members, Ledwith said.

In addition to the wage increases, the contract updates include moving the health insurance coverage for employees and future retirees to the Connecticut State Partnership Plan.

West Hartford Public Schools teachers joined that plan in July 2019, and Ledwith said it has worked out very well in stabilizing premium costs for the town and providing a more attractive health plan that can help attract new hires – a PPO rather than high deductible plan. The State Partnership Plan also has a health enhancement program that requires screenings. Those who fail to adhere to the screening schedule are penalized with higher premiums of $100 per month, as well as increased individual and family deductibles.

Ledwith said he estimates a savings of $145,000 for the town during FY2022, as well as a 50% reduction of future retiree health care costs.

For Tier 2 employees – those hired after Aug. 1, 2006 but before June 26, 2018 – the new contract amends the deferred compensation plan to offer a dollar-to-dollar match, each calendar year, of the first $750 contribution by the employee to the town-sponsored deferred compensation plan. The cost to the town for this change is $31,500.

Riddick expressed his thanks for the successful negotiation of a fair and just contract, and prior to the vote asked for unanimous approval. He said he has been talking with the town manager about negotiating the contract since one of their first meetings three year ago, and had identified it as a “mission critical” task. And, he added, “that was not anticipating George Floyd and that was not anticipating COVID-19,” which have caused it to become “even more mission critical.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more that this past year has been a heck of a year,” said Carol Blanks, who chairs the Council’s Public Safety Committee. She commended officers and leadership for the job they continue to do every day, noting the heavy burden they must take home to their families.

“I do think that it is our job to show that in return by awarding the proper contract for the job that you do deliver each and every day,” Blanks said.

“Great job by the negotiating team … to realize the situation that the town finds itself in and what their rank and file finds themselves in on a daily basis,” Deputy Mayor Leon Davidoff said, also asking his colleagues for unanimous support to send a strong message to the union and the public.

It’s difficult to quantify the cost of losing 20 year veterans, Davidoff said. “To have that mentorship is priceless.”

Minority Leader Lee Gold expressed his support for the contract, commending the give and take of the negotiation. He also praised Riddick and the department. “I give you kudos for maintaining order through this chaos,” he said.

“Our police is probably the most forward-facing part of our town that we see every day,” said Council member Liam Sweeney. He said he is proud to support the contact.

Council member Chris Williams said while he generally has reservations against public sector bargaining units, public safety is the exception and he appreciates the work that went into this negotiation.

“To ratify this contract I think is a really nice testament to past year … West Hartford police department officers and everyone in the rank and file served honorably,” Williams said. “I am happy to support it and I thank you for all your work.”

Mayor Shari Cantor said approving this contract in advance makes history, and speaks volumes.

“That really is indication that everyone stepped in… all felt that this was important. I know it wasn’t easy, everyone didn’t get what they wanted in this contract, but that’s the balance that we strike,” said Cantor. “This is not what you signed up for,” she said, noting that officers have had to put not only their own but their family’s safety on the line due to COVID, and to endure the increased scrutiny.

She thanked Chief Riddick for his partnership in this negotiation, as well as for his support of the citizens review board. “Chief, you have been such a leader and supportive, but demanding and clear on the expectations of what you expect from the officers.”

Complete copies of the fiscal impact study for the new contract and the existing agreement it amends can be found as PDFs below.

Ledwith said the town is close to agreeing to a contract with the CSEA, which represents six collective bargaining units. He hopes to bring that agreement to the Council at during one of the upcoming meetings.

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