AS HE promised during the campaign, Mayor Walsh has negotiated a tentative contract with Boston Firefighters Local 718 without the need for extended arbitration. But city taxpayers don’t know whether to cheer or jeer, because neither the mayor nor the union has offered any details on the deal.
Boston continues to face an uncertain fiscal environment in terms of state aid as well as heavy pension and retiree health care liabilities. Walsh, who enjoyed a lot of labor support, reiterated many times along the campaign trail that he intended to be good fiscal steward. This contract will go a long way toward proving or disproving that statement. And it’s not comforting that he has decided to clam up.
There were no legal or ethical reasons to withhold the terms of the deal from the public. Doing so means that the city’s 1,400 firefighters will have plenty of time to review details and meet with advisers before voting in the next week or two on the ratification of the six-year contract. But taxpayers are supposed to sit on their hands and wait for a small window of opportunity between that vote and consideration of the contract by the City Council, the appropriating authority.
Last year, an arbitrator issued a 25.4 percent salary increase over six years to Boston Police officers. The inflated deal will cost taxpayers an extra $87 million. That got the firefighters’ attention and raised their expectations. If Walsh agrees to something close to that level of increase, he will have placed the city on shaky fiscal ground and perpetuated the financial arms race between the police and fire unions.
The base pay often overshadows complex details in public safety contracts. Firefighters, for example, get a unique bump in pay, known as the transitional career award program, that translates into an annual average salary increase of 0.5 percent each time the base wage increases. Budget experts at the nonprofit Boston Municipal Research Bureau can always be counted on to sift through such hidden compensation details, including subtle changes in shift differentials and sick leave. But Walsh is placing restraints on the bureau, which will give the fiscal watchdog less time to determine the true cost of the contract.
What’s also unclear is whether Walsh came away with any reforms in exchange for the pay increase. Has the new mayor managed to gain tighter control of the shift-swapping by firefighters that can lead to operational problems? Are injured firefighters still allowed to remain on six-week leave even after they are healthy enough to return to light duty? Walsh, who benefited greatly from the endorsement of the powerful firefighters’ union in last year’s mayor’s race, has decided to play this one tight to his vest. In the process, he has choked off public commentary and raised legitimate questions about his own motives.