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Haverhill may sue after firefighters awarded $2.5m in back pay

By Brenda J. Buote
Globe Correspondent / March 15, 2012
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After agreeing last week, in the wake of an elderly woman’s death in a fire, to a plan that will keep Haverhill’s rescue truck fully staffed until July, Mayor James J. Fiorentini said he hoped the agreement would help resolve years of acrimony between him and the firefighters union.

But the chances of a lasting peace appear dim.

Haverhill is considering how to respond to an arbitration ruling handed down March 1 that could force it to pay the firefighters roughly $2.5 million in back wages, considerably more than the $594,000 it had set aside in this year’s budget to fund an award.

When pressed, the mayor would not rule out the possibility of legal action.

“We do not have enough money in free cash to cover the cost of the award,’’ said Fiorentini, noting that after the union makes the health care concessions ordered by the arbitration panel, the city would have to come up with about $2.3 million. “We are examining all options.’’

Should the city decide to sue the local firefighters union and the arbitration panel, it would not be the first municipality to try to halt through court action enforcement of a payout ordered by a three-member state Joint Labor-Management Committee panel.

In January, Somerville sued Local 76 of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Middlesex Superior Court, trying to block $4.3 million in back pay awarded Somerville’s firefighters by a state arbitration panel. Judge Thomas R. Murtagh denied the city’s request. Soon after, Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone and union leaders settled on an eight-year contract that includes $3.72 million in back pay and three future raises.

The agreement allowed Somerville to avert layoffs and some cuts to services. In Haverhill, the impact of the award ordered by the arbitration panel is not yet clear.

“If we drain our reserves, what impact would that have on our bond rating?’’ asked Fiorentini. “What kind of cuts would we need to make to fund this award? These are the kinds of questions we’re looking at.’’

The city had $7.4 million in unspent money, or certified free cash, at the start of this fiscal year, state Department of Revenue records show. However, according to city solicitor William D. Cox Jr., most of that money is in the water and wastewater departments and cannot be tapped for the city’s general expenses.

The arbitration panel criticized the city for failing to set aside money in previous years to fund the firefighters’ pay raises, and awarded members of the IAFF’s Local 1101 retroactive annual wage increases of 1 percent for the budget years starting in July 2006 and 2007, 2 percent in 2008, 2009, and 2010, and 2.5 percent in 2011.

The city, citing financial difficulties stemming from the large debt it incurred with the closing of its former municipal hospital, had proposed that the firefighters receive no wage increases for the first five years and a 7 percent wage increase for the current fiscal year, which began in July 2011; this comes out to an average increase of 1.17 percent per year.

The union argued that the city’s imprudent planning for the funding of a reasonable pay raise should not be rewarded, and had proposed a 3 percent increase per year, for a six-year total of 18 percent.

When reached by telephone Monday afternoon, union president Gregg Roberts declined to comment, saying that he felt a cooling off period would benefit everyone.

“It does neither one of us any good to keep going back and forth,’’ he said.

Tensions between the parties have been running high since the fatal house fire last Wednesday. The union called for the mayor’s resignation amid controversy over whether recent staffing cuts were to blame for her death. Fiorentini had reduced the staff of a department rescue truck from three firefighters to one, citing a projected $200,000 shortfall in the Fire Department budget.

Haverhill Fire Chief Richard Borden said preliminary analysis showed that reduced manning on the rescue truck did not play a role in the woman’s death. Ultimately, firefighters agreed to staff the truck on a volunteer basis until the end of the month. After that, firefighters who owe the city time because of a previous suspension will fill in until the start of the new budget year, on July 1.

The uproar over staffing was the latest in a long line of dust-ups between the mayor and the firefighters union. For the last decade, the parties have had a strained relationship. Their last successful effort to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement was in January 2002, when they executed a one-year contract.

They were unable to negotiate a successor to that agreement. In 2005, there was a three-day hearing before a Joint Labor-Management Committee panel, which resulted in an award that set the terms of a four-year contract covering the period from July 1, 2002 to June 30, 2006.

The firefighters union and city negotiators had been in talks since 2006, when the firefighters’ last contract expired. Until last year, the parties had been communicating, but an impasse forced the dispute into mediation and then arbitration.

The wage increases awarded by the arbitration panel amount to an overall pay raise of 10.5 percent, slightly higher than the 9.75 percent pay increase the city had negotiated with the Police Patrolmen’s Association. In its 24-page opinion, the arbitration panel noted that the city’s patrol officers, in addition to wage increases, had secured protection of their Quinn Bill payments, a benefit equivalent to roughly $300,000 per year, which are paid to police officers who hold degrees in law enforcement and criminal justice.

The arbitration panel also noted that the wage increases awarded to the Haverhill firefighters are in line with pay raises given to firefighters in comparable communities, including Andover, (11 percent); Everett, (15 percent); Malden, (11 percent); and Peabody, (12.5 percent).

“In view of this evidence . . . it appears that the 10.5 percent increase for the [Haverhill] firefighters is amply justified in comparison to the wages (and related items) of other employees performing similar services, within Haverhill and comparable communities,’’ the ruling noted. It was penned by Lawrence E. Katz, chairman of the arbitration panel.

However, handwritten notes on the “Interest Arbitration Award’’ sheet seem to indicate that two of the panel’s three members - firefighter representative Jay Colbert and management representative Gerard Hayes - dissented with the wage provision.

After reviewing the document, the city questioned whether a pay raise had been awarded. The response from the Joint Labor-Management Committee was swift and clear. Richard Reilly, head of the committee, said, “The award stands. It was signed and transmitted to the parties.’’

State law requires Fiorentini to support the award and to submit to the City Council within 30 days a plan to fund it. The mayor would not say when he expected to submit a plan.

“We’re aware that this is the order, and we’re examining all options concerning it,’’ Fiorentini said.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com

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