The vote by the West Hartford Town Council on the contracts was split along party lines.
By Ronni Newton
The West Hartford Town Council voted 5-2 Tuesday night to approve two separate but nearly identical collective bargaining agreements that had been ratified by the approximateley 75 employees belonging to the CSEA, Local 2001, SEIU Professional and Management Unit and Grounds Maintenance Unit.
“There were a lot of challenging issues we were trying to deal with,” Executive Director of Human Resources Rick Ledwith said of the process that began in 2013.
The agreements are four-year contracts, which have been in arbitration and are retroactive back to July 1, 2013. “It was a long process, very time-consuming, and to be honest very frustrating,” Ledwith said. However, he said that he believes the final agreements address both health care and pension reform and will be “significant benefit to the community in years ahead.”
“It took a lot of patience and a lot of fortitude for everyone involved in what continue to be longterm challenges for all of us,” Deputy Mayor Shari Cantor said. Cantor praised the quality of the Town’s employees who are part of the unions and who are “as professional as in any private industry.”
Both Republican Town Council members who were present at the meeting Tuesday did not dispute the professionalism of the Town’s employees, but both voted against the agreements because they disagree with the nature of the collective bargaining process that results in health, pension, and retirement plans that are still much more generous than those found in the private sector.
“My concern with this contract is that comes down to an issue of fairness between the public and private sector,” said Chris Barnes.
Health and pension costs continue to be the biggest drivers of the Town’s budget year after year, Barnes said. “While we continue to make progress on this front, and we are, there’s no doubt about it … I think for people to understand, in order to reign in our costs going forward we need to focus on these contracts and find a way to make them more in context with the private sector. I’m fully aware of the limitations built into the collective bargaining, and it screams for reform. How to best compensate our employees so we’re not tied into long term benefits is a discussion that we should be having going forward,” Barnes said.
“Certainly one of the things that I’ve been talking about for a long time is how the collective bargaining process ties our hands. We walk in each year and say we have no control of this part of the process,” Minority Leader Denise Hall said. Hall also said that she has a philosophical problem with public employees who are union members voting for the people who decide what their benefit are.
“I’m conflicted – look at all our residents – we don’t get automatic increases, we don’t get pensions, and we have people who struggle to pay their taxes,” she said. “We’ve made a lot of progress, we understand what the issue is, but our hands are tied because of state laws about collective bargaining. When taxes go up year in and year out, it’s because of collective bargaining,” said Hall.
“I love you but I couldn’t disagree with you more,” Democrat Clare Kindall replied to Hall. This was the last Town Council meeting for Kindall, who did not run for reelection, and she said she would use the opportunity to strongly express her opinion, which is completely the opposite.
“I am fully in support of unions, fully supportive of public employees being in unions,” Kindall said. The purpose of collective bargainig and arbitration is to protect against people walking out on their jobs, she said. “Public employees don’t make as much – they don’t get high wages but will get high benefits. It’s a quid pro quo – we’ll give you good benefits but we’ll pay you later,” she said.
Hall disagreed, and said that public employees on average are now paid about the same, and the value of their benefits as a percentage of salary in Connecticut are the highest in the country. “I fully agree that that was part of the premise but I think we have gotten beyond that now,” she said.
“I don’t want to lose sight that there are difficulties in the system and our ability to carry out our interest,” said Mayor Scott Slifka. “There is an increasing recognition that we need to have a bit of a partnership – these are not negotiations that go on it a bubble – they do impact the taxpayer.” However, he praised Ledwith for the work that was done on the collective bargaining agreements.
Specifics of the new contract incorporate wage increases, including 2 percent increases effective on July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2014, and a 2.25 percent increase effective July 1, 2015, all of which will be implemented retroactively. A 2.25 percent wage increase will also be implemented on July 1, 2016.
Changes to the pension plan the collective bargaining units include increasing contributions by 0.5 percent per year, for an overall increase from a 3 percent contribution to a 5 percent contribution by the end of the contract – close to the 6 percent “true cost” of the plan, Ledwith said.
In addition, new hires will be required to participate in a hybrid of a defined benefit and defined contribution plan. That change, “literally cuts the liability in half by for new hires on the defined benefit plan,” Ledwith said. Although it will be four to five years before the impact will truly be felt, the Town’s defined benefit liability will be reduced from its current $80 million to $40 million as employees transition from the Town of West Hartford’s Pension Plan Part B to Part E. Roughly a third of Part B employees are eligible for retirement in the next several years, Ledwith said.
Both unions have also agreed to eliminate sick pay at regirment for new hires, Ledwith said, a change that will ultimately result in millions of dollars of savings. West Hartford has a total of 21 bargaining units, and following approval of these two agreements by the Town Council, 14 of those will have eliminated that benefit for new hires.
Both unions have also agreed to health care reform that includes increased contributions and copayments as well as incorporating a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) as an option for all employees. The HDHP has a deductible of $1,500 for individuals and $3,000 for family. The premium contribution is 16 percent (less than the contribution to the PPO) and the Town will also fund 50 percent of the deductible.
Members of both unions have also agreed to swap Lincoln’s Birthday in exchange for a floating holiday, eliminating confusion on a day when schools are in session but other parts of Town Hall have been closed.
If the collective bargaining agreements had not been approved by the Town Council, they would have been returned to arbitration, Ledwith said.
Work on the next round of agreements, which expire in 2017, will begin within a year, said Ledwith.
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