Firefighters deal vetoed by Lozeau

NASHUA – Mayor Donnalee Lozeau on Tuesday afternoon vetoed the cost items in a five-year, $81 million firefighters contract.

A split board of aldermen had approved the collective bargaining agreement Oct. 14 by an 8-6 vote, with one board member absent. The board would need 10 votes to override the mayor’s veto.

This was the second time Lozeau had vetoed the cost items of a union contract during her nine-plus months in office. In February, Lozeau used a line-item veto to scrap retroactive raises in the first year of a proposed teachers contract.

“The cost items of the firefighters’ proposed collective bargaining agreement do not from my perspective fairly balance the needs of the taxpayers of Nashua, the city’s administration and all of Nashua’s firefighters,” Lozeau wrote in a letter to City Clerk Paul Bergeron announcing the veto.

“I’m not surprised. I kind of figured that might go down. I’m not too thrilled,” said Tim Soucy, president of Local 789 of the International Association of Firefighters.

“The mayor had to do what she thought was right,” said Paul Garant, chairman of the board of fire commissioners.

“I still believe the contract was a fair contract,” Garant said.

Lozeau noted that $1.2 million had been set aside to cover the contract’s cost, leaving a $650,000 shortfall in the money needed for fiscal years 2008 and 2009.She said that aldermen would have to consider canceling improvements to the city’s infrastructure to cover the costs.

While the majority of firefighters would receive raises in line with what other city unions received, a minority would receive raises of more than 10 percent, “including some annual increases of 17 percent to 23 percent,” Lozeau wrote.

The contract would cover 168 firefighters and extend retroactively from fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2011. For those years, it would give firefighters average raises of zero percent, 4.70 percent, 5.68 percent, 5.72 percent and 4.69 percent, respectively.

City firefighters have been working for two years under the terms of an expired contract.

Garant said the minority of firefighters receiving large percentage raises are new firefighters completing their probationary period. Those firefighters receive a raise after nine months and another raise after two years, Garant said.

“Those are the ones getting the big increases, but they’re the ones who are at the bottom of the pay scale,” Garant said.

In a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, Lozeau said, “I’ve been concerned about it and expressing my concerns for some time now. I made the final decision at the end of the day (Monday).”

Her decision was spurred by the shortfall, the potential need to curtail spending on infrastructure, the cost of the contract over five years and other factors, she said.

For example, the Nashua Fire Rescue department is two trucks behind in the replacement schedule and will need a ladder truck by 2011. Ladder trucks typically are double the cost of engine trucks, Lozeau said.

“It’s not about just the money. It’s about, should we do this? Is it the right thing to do when you look at all the competing factors?”

She added, “This year’s tax rate is going to have an impact on next year’s tax rate.”

A mayor doesn’t have the luxury of looking at just one city division, Lozeau said. She has to look at the city as a whole, she said.

Lozeau is concerned about the contract’s ramifications for the public works employees, whose contract still unresolved. She also worried the terms in the firefighters contract could create grounds for other unions to reopen negotiations.

“This is not a decision I take lightly. I put a significant amount of thought into it,” Lozeau said.

Lozeau e-mailed her veto letter to members of the board of aldermen. On Tuesday evening, at least two aldermen hadn’t yet opened the e-mail.

One was Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy, who had supported the contract.

“I don’t have a lot of reaction to it. I’m not terribly surprised. I knew she had some concerns about it. We’ll have to work through the process,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy agreed that the board of aldermen probably didn’t have the 10 votes necessary to override the veto.

“I think it’s very eloquent, very well thought out,” Ward 9 Alderman Jeffrey Cox said of the veto. Cox supported the contract and was co-sponsor of legislation that would fund the shortfall by transferring money from an account for City Hall renovations.

“Many of us were torn initially with the shortfall,” said Cox, who had termed the contract, “fair and equitable, albeit rich.”

“I’m disappointed, to say the least,” said Alderman-at-Large Ben Clemons, who proposed transferring money from City Hall repairs to fund the shortfall and suggested ways to build the renovation account back up.

“The mayor said the great majority of firefighters received a substantial but fair raise,” but then vetoed the contract because of what a minority of firefighters would receive, Clemons said.

“She believes city infrastructure repairs are more important than paying our city employees. That’s a stance I’m not willing to take. I would never vote to fund a building over people,” Clemons said.

Lozeau’s veto was applauded by Ward 7 Alderman Richard Flynn, who had voted against the contract because of its cost.

“I think she did the right thing,” Flynn said. “We spoke about this pretty much in depth at the (budget review) committee and again with the full board.”

The $1.2 million set aside should be adequate to fund a fair and equitable contract, Flynn said.

Flynn said he wasn’t surprised at the mayor’s veto. During a finance committee meeting, Lozeau proposed holding off on the purchase of a fire truck, which Flynn took to be a sign that the mayor was struggling with how to fund the contract.

Flynn said he was confident the fire commissioners would return with a contract that stays within the $1.2 million set aside, especially considering health insurance and other excellent benefits provided by the offer presented to the union.

Historically, it takes about $800,000 to $900,000 beyond payroll to fund the fire department’s electricity, water, hoses, equipment replacement and other costs, Flynn said. Had the contract been allowed to stand, the department would have had less than half that amount in the years the contract covered, he said.

“I hate to see it go back to the (bargaining) table. I don’t think that’s the way it should have gone,” Cox said.

But that will happen if aldermen sustain the mayor’s veto, Garant said.

“My guess is probably as good as anybody else’s. I don’t know where we go from this point,” Soucy said.

He said the union has had no direction from City Hall on what would be acceptable.

“I’m kind of interested in seeing what the funding mechanisms are they’re going to come up with,” Soucy said.

The easy thing to do would have been to just find the money and let the contract take effect, Lozeau said.

“That’s not in the best interest of where the city needs to go,” she said.

The city faces infrastructure costs, such as repairing sewer collapses.

“The city’s infrastructure is old,” Lozeau said.

Also, the needs of the fire department are greater than just payroll.

If you consider the fire department’s budget for 2010 and plug in the cost items for this contract, the department would exceed the spending cap before appropriating money for anything else, Lozeau said.

The spending cap holds increases in city spending to inflationary rates based on the Consumer Price Index for urban areas in the Northeast region.

Lozeau said that $1.2 million set aside to fund the contract should be adequate to fund a fair contract.

If the contract stayed within that level, “I would be more inclined to accept that,” Lozeau said.