Mayor Thomas M. Menino said Monday that the firefighters’ union could end its bitter and longstanding deadlock with the city if it agreed not only to delay, for a year, a 2.5 percent wage increase for drug and alcohol testing but also to limit the benefit to current members of the Fire Department, not future hires.
The 2.5 percent raise is the most contentious component of a double-digit wage increase awarded to firefighters last month by an independent arbitrator, and it has become a major sticking point as the City Council weighs whether to approve the deal.
The union told the City Council last week that it would be willing to put off the 2.5 percent increase for a year, which would save the city $4.5 million next fiscal year, but did not respond publicly to the mayor’s latest counteroffer, to also limit the raise only to current firefighters, which Menino says would save $25 million over 20 years.
Council President Michael P. Ross said late Monday that the mayor was not supposed to air his latest counterproposal publicly, and that doing so threatened to undermine tentative talks that he helped initiate between the mayor's aides and the union president, Edward A. Kelly. The talks lasted about 40 minutes Monday and will resume this afternoon, he said.
“I give Ed Kelly tremendous credit for coming to the table in the first place,” Ross said. “This is on the heels of a very significant concession and it’s on the heels of an arbitration agreement that was decided. His willingness to meet with the administration, at the council’s request, is a true act of leadership on his part.”
By contrast, Ross said, he was dismayed that the mayor had spoken to reporters about his counterproposal to limit the benefit to current firefighters only, saying the disclosure had "somewhat compromised" the delicate talks.
“I don’t think there was malice there, but I think it affected the good will that was established," Ross said.
Dot Joyce, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said Menino was only filling in the details of a forceful but vague letter he had sent to the City Council Sunday, in which he rejected the union's proposed delay in the 2.5 percent increase as inadequate.
“He was clarifying what the letter intended to say,” Joyce said.
Ross said he was still hoping the two sides would agree on concessions before the council's scheduled vote tomorrow on whether to approve the arbitrator's award, which, as it stands, will give firefighters a 19 percent raise through next fiscal year, and cost the city $74 million over five years, according to outside budget specialists and city officials; the firefighters’ union disputes those figures, arguing the costs are lower.
Menino has said the city cannot afford such a large pay increase for firefighters when it is closing libraries and weighing other painful cuts to cope with the economic downturn. His proposal was his fullest accounting yet of what a more palatable deal might look like.
"We have a reasonable proposal on the table,” the mayor told reporters before a summer jobs announcement in Roxbury. “I think most of the council will agree with us that it’s a reasonable agreement and we want to get it done, and get this behind us, because it’s all about saving taxpayers’ money.”
Kelly, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 718, did not return calls seeking comment on the mayor’s plan, and declined to discuss the brief talks with the mayor's aides at City Hall.
"I’m not able to talk about what’s going on in that room,” he said before the bargaining session Monday morning. “Right now, we're focused on making sure our members are protected and represented properly.”
The talks were proposed at a council hearing Monday morning by Councilors John R. Connolly and Mark Ciommo. Connolly said he wanted both sides to “get in a room and work towards a resolution that results in a fair contract for the firefighters and that is fiscally responsible to the taxpayers of Boston.”
Ross and Councilors Felix G. Arroyo and Salvatore LaMattina sat in on the bargaining session, joining the mayor's staff and the firefighters' representatives at a large conference table in the Curley Room, off the Council Chamber, which was set with yellow legal pads, calculators, and carafes of water.
At about 10:45 a.m., 40 minutes after the talks began, Lisa C. Signori, the mayor’s chief financial officer, and John Dunlap, the mayor’s labor relations director, walked out of the room, along with Kelly and his lawyer, E. David Wanger. None of them commented.
Ross said Kelly and other union officials had said they needed to attend a funeral for the father of state Representative Martin J. Walsh of Dorchester. Ross said he was hopeful the talks would result in a breakthrough tomorrow.
“This is all an effort to move us forward, to move us past what has become a very destructive, four-year toxic environment here between labor and management,” he said. “I believe the productivity of our city is at stake here and I believe that attention has turned away from more important priorities of our city, namely youth violence and other issues.”
The mayor said he was also hopeful the bargaining session would produce an agreement. “I’m very serious about it,” Menino said. “My team is on call right now to go back to the table. I think we can get it done.”
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