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Judge denies attempt to block $4.3 million raise for Somerville firefighters

Posted by Matt Byrne  January 13, 2012 06:15 PM

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A Middlesex Superior Court Judge Friday denied the City of Somerville's attempt to block the  payment of $4.3 million in back pay awarded to city firefighters by a state arbitration board in December.  

Judge Thomas R. Murtagh denied each of the city's three claims in the lawsuit, which came on the heels of the Dec. 13 award by the state Joint Labor Management Committee granting the firefighters four successive retroactive raises. 

One of the city's main contentions against the suit rested on whether the arbitration committee properly gauged the city's ability to pay. But Murtagh wrote that Somerville during negotiations outlined in 59 pages the city's financial condition. 

Now the 11-member Board of Aldermen must deliberate on the appropriation.

At an alderman meeting Thursday, Jay Colbert, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 76, defended the award, which he said was unanimously decided in a mutually agreed-upon process. Because fire personnel are by law prohibited from going on strike, the state arbitration process in the only way a contractual disagreement may be solved, union leaders said.

"We're not trying to bankrupt anyone. We're not pigs at a trough," said Jay Colbert, president of Local 76, whose members packed the aldermanic chambers for the brief meeting. Colbert spoke at the request of Ward 6 Alderwoman Rebekah Gewirtz.

The plea came as the aldermen received the first detailed accounting of deep cuts Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone's office said the award would trigger: 31 layoffs, 18 positions left vacant, and the closure of the city's West Branch Library, according to documents provided by the mayor's office.

"Lets put this behind us, let's vote this contract up, and give everyone in this room what they deserve," Colbert said, to the cheers of union members.

The payout also would delay $346,182 in funding to more than 20 budget categories. If enacted as planned, layoffs could begin in February, according to the documents.

The appropriation request from Curtatone's office was submitted on the eve of a legally mandated 30-day deadline, and came the day after city attorneys appeared in Middlesex Superior Court to argue against the Joint Labor Management Committee's award.  

A Superior Court judge declined to make a ruling, but heard oral arguments in the city's lawsuit against the union, which seeks to halt the award pending further legal action. 

A ruling could come at any time in the suit.

To pay for the $4.3 million, the city split the costs across a wide swatch of government. About $1.15 million in cuts from city departments would include the layoff of 10 firefighters and the demotion of six more to lower pay grades. Police would not escape unscathed: Curtatone's plan would leave vacant seven community policing positions.

A fire analyst and four firefighter positions would be left vacant as well.

About $419,000 of the award would come from the Fire Department's salary account; $255,648 would be drawn from the city's free cash fund; and $2.4 million from a contingency fund the city uses to pay for collective bargaining agreements.

Members of the Board of Aldermen offered little comment on the plan pending three public meetings and a hearing, scheduled by Finance Committee chair Maryann Heuston. 

A pair of Finance Committee meetings scheduled at 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at City Hall will be the first public discussion of the settlement award by the aldermen. A hearing slated for the Somerville High School Auditorium will follow Jan 30 at 6 p.m., before a final Finance Committee gathering Feb. 1.

Although the board declined to delve into the details last night and tensions in the chamber seemed high, Colbert in his statement offered an olive branch of sorts, offering to allow the mayor and the board to defer about $1.9 million in costs until next year to stave off layoffs.

City spokesman Tom Champion said the union must take some procedural steps before city planners can consider Colbert's suggestion an official offer. He also said the cost of the award extends further than the $4.3 million because of a clause in the labor committee's finding that would add firefighter stipends to their base salaries.

The addition is significant, Champion said, because base salary is used to determine overtime pay and other compensation. The boost could imply higher pension liability in the future, Champion said, but that decision is up to a state retirement board and not the city.

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