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Weymouth

Fire pay award is too high, Kay says

It will be up to the Weymouth Town Council to decide whether to fund a recent arbitration award that gives local firefighters retroactive pay hikes totaling 5 percent — an amount the mayor says will make it more difficult to maintain current municipal services and pay for needed capital expenses.

“The financial picture this year is not good at all,” Mayor Sue Kay said in an interview. She estimated that the recommendation of a panel of the state’s Joint Labor-Management Committee for Municipal Police and Fire would cost “about $700,000, give or take $100,000.” The current municipal budget is about $135 million, she said.

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Firefighters counter that the town has the money and that they deserve it. There are 87 firefighters in the department, plus the chief.

“There’s more money there; the town has the ability to pay,” said union president Rick Ramponi.

Kay said she will present her plan for paying for the arbitration award to the Town Council on Tuesday. The council must decide whether to fund the award, or go back to negotiations, according to Kevin Franck, a spokesman for the arbitration committee. Any negotiations would be monitored by the state panel, he said.

The panel recommended no increase in firefighter wages for fiscal year 2011, but a 2.5 percent hike for each of the following two years.

The dispute goes back to negotiations for a three-year contract covering fiscal 2011 through 2013. The union asked for retroactive pay increases of 4 percent, 3 percent, and another 4 percent over the three years — arguing that local teachers received similar increases.

Police officers also received an extra $1.5 million in that time period when the town decided to pay for educational benefits that had previously been picked up by the state, the firefighters’ union said — making its proposal look ”positively paltry” in comparison,

The union also pointed to increases in the town’s free cash, stabilization, and reserve accounts — from $1.9 million in fiscal 2008, to $4.8 million in 2012 — as a sign that municipal finances were improving and the town had the ability to pay firefighters more.

The town had offered a wage package with no pay raises in fiscal 2011, 2.5 percent in fiscal 2012, and 1 percent in fiscal 2013.

In its argument, the town said its proposal kept the firefighters’ salary increases in line with those of other town employees, with the exception of the teachers whose contract “represents the aberration, not the standard.”

The town also objected to the idea that increased amounts of free cash were a measure of “ability to pay” — since the money is not a continuous source of income and Weymouth faces large increases in other expenses, such as health insurance premiums and state-mandated school spending.

In its decision, the arbitration panel commented on the “extreme ill-toned and hard-nosed relationship between the Union and the Town. The firefighters feel put upon and the town feels ripped off. . . . Neither opinion is conducive to developing a fair and workable arrangement between the parties.”

The panel also cautioned the town against taking any “type of retribution” against the firefighters. And it urged the town to “take a tougher stance” on negotiations with SouthField developers over paying for fire protection in the new development at the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station.

“It should not take a major conflagration with serious property damage and possible injury or death to wake [the developer] up to figure out how it is going to establish a small city without permanent fire protection,” the arbitration panel said.

Kay said she objected to the panel’s comments and planned to file a complaint with the state. “The little innuendo comments, on things they know nothing about, are not right. And if I have to go to the governor [about them], I will,” she said.

If the town complies with the nonbinding arbitration decision, the money to pay for it will have to come from other department budgets or money set aside for capital expenses such as new fire trucks and public works’ vehicles, she said.

Ramponi, the union president, responded by saying the labor group had never gone to arbitration before Kay took office. “She’s been here two terms and we’ve gone [to arbitration] twice. That speaks volumes of her negotiating tactics — to draw it out, draw it out,” he said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com
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