Turner a ‘no’ as City Council waits for analysis of firefighter pact

A district councillor this week became the first member of the City Council to oppose the raise awarded to Boston firefighters through arbitration, as his colleagues await a pair of analyses on the matter.

The 13-member City Council has been struggling with the question of whether they should approve the raise, constituting 19 percent over four years in exchange for random drug and alcohol testing. Last week, an independent arbitrator released a report outlining his reasons for the decision to award the raise to the firefighters.

District 7 Councillor Chuck Turner called the proposed raise “fair but unaffordable.” During these difficult financial times, we as government officials have to maintain financial balance,” he said in a statement. “That is, we have to make sure that we are not giving increased benefits to the personnel of some departments while taking away benefits from others.”

Leaders of Firefighters Union 718, based in Dorchester, say the city has enough money available. They remain confident they have the votes as most councillors have said they are still mulling the ruling. The union says other unions have received raises in exchange for either accepting education incentives or drug testing.

Councillor John Tobin, who represents West Roxbury, has said he is voting for the contract.

If the council votes to reject the proposal, Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration and the union will go back to the bargaining table, restarting a process that began in 2006.

Depending on who is asked, the cost of the contract ranges between $39.4 million – what the independent arbitrator says it will cost – and $74 million, which is the Menino administration’s figure.

Sam Tyler, head of the independent Boston Municipal Research Bureau, is conducting his own analysis of the contract. “I think the issue before the City Council is not whether the city has enough money to pay the contract,” he told the Reporter, adding that the Menino administration has been “prudent” in putting aside money for collective bargaining. “It’s what influence this decision will have on negotiating contracts.”

The city is due to negotiate contracts with other unions, including four police unions and the teachers’ union, he said. That comes as the city is entering a “time of fiscal uncertainty,” as it remains unclear how much money the state will provide in local aid, he added. “It’s tough for the city to be able to commit to any reasonable increase with this uncertainty,” Tyler said.

City Council President Michael Ross has also asked a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Thomas Kochan, to analyze the proposed deal. “The question before the council should be whether or not to fund the award, not whether the appropriations figure is correct,” Ross wrote in a letter to Menino this week.

Kochan is expected to meet with the Menino administration and union officials. A separate City Council hearing on the deal is also expected.

“I conclude that the city’s proposal to skim the frosting, pocket the cake, and avoid paying the fair, reasonable, and affordable value of the meal is a hound that will not hunt,’’ the independent arbitrator, Dana Eischen, wrote in his metaphorically challenged 26-page decision. “To hold otherwise would ascribe zero value to a milestone drug and alcohol policy of enormous, lasting, and arguably ‘priceless’ benefit in terms of human lives of firefighters and members of the public saved or rescued.’’

Menino, for his part, says the city has not set aside enough money to fund the decision and will need to look at different areas of the budget to find the money. “This is particularly difficult during a time when Boston is facing a significant decline in state aid for the second straight year and fixed costs continue to rise much faster than revenues,” Menino wrote in his weekly column.
“City Departments have already been asked to make difficult financial decisions, closing branch libraries and community centers and reducing funding to vital programs.“

Gov. Deval Patrick, who has clashed with other unions who have accused him and others in the Legislature of harming the concept of collective bargaining through legislation, has called the raise “hard to justify.” Patrick, in a radio appearance last week, said, “It just blows my mind.” He added: “I love firefighters. But it’s so hard to justify this outcome when it was higher than what’s on the table. Everybody else has taken a hit.”

Robert McCarthy, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts, lashed out at Patrick’s comments, calling them “baseless” on the union’s website.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.