Leaders from several Connecticut River towns, including Haddam, East Haddam, Portland, Deep River and Durham, met today to talk about how to deal with upcoming contract negotiations in their respective towns.
The municipal officials took part in the regular meeting of the Connecticut River Valley Council of Elected Officials and heard a presentation by labor lawyer Gabriel J. Jiran, of the Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin, LLP.
In his presentation to the approximately 20 officials who attended the meeting, Jiran outlined several ways in which towns could save money in upcoming contracts with municipal employee unions, including early retirement options, increased health insurance co-payments for workers, furloughs, reduced work hours for some employees and regionalizing some union contracts with other towns.
Other options, he said, could include cutting worker salaries, eliminating some paid holidays and contracting with outside sources for some municipal services.
All of those options, he said, have positive and negative ramifications for towns. For instance, regionalizing some contracts is tricky and tough to get unions to agree on.
“Unions are reluctant because of unknowns and they’re generally happy with their contracts.”
Cutting wages is also unpopular, but cutting workers’ hours at least gives them time off in exchange for reduced pay.
“Even though they’re pay is going down, they’re getting something back for it.”
Many municipal and public school employee union contracts are renewing this year at a time when town leaders are grappling with either reduced or stagnant local revenues and are worried about balancing their budgets without steep tax increases.
That same issue has seen controversy in other states, such as Wisconsin and Ohio, where governors have either sought significant union concessions or want to limit the power of public employee unions.
If bargaining units here can’t be persuaded on concessions, Jiran said, town leaders might have to look at reducing the services they provide or tell union leaders that layoffs will result.
“It deserves mention at times to say ‘How are we going to pay for this?’ Sometimes we have to say to the union ‘If you want a 3 percent increase we’re telling you we can’t afford it.’ ”
Some of the town leaders expressed frustration with the process called “binding arbitration,” which the state mandates when local contract negotiations become deadlocked.
Arbiters, said Old Saybrook First Selectman Michael Pace “give away the candy store. It’s just a Merry-go-Round” that inflates contracts year after year, he said. Arbiters, he added, look at things like annual grand list increases in towns to determine their ability to pay salaries and benefits for workers, and not more realistic indicators.
“It’s not based on the taxpayers’ ability to pay,” he said. “The grand list is meaningless when people are getting laid off.”
Portland First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield said threats like layoffs and service reductions is not an option for many towns, where cuts have been going on for years in an effort to balance budgets.
“We need to run a town and that tactic is not available to us anymore,” Bransfield said. “We’ve cut and cut and running the town is getting to be difficult with one person in a department. Statutorily, you have to have certain functions.”