Firefighters pact could face upheaval

NASHUA – Not much has happened since the aldermen’s budget review committee voted to recommend the firefighters contract.

What has happened is that the stock market fell 1,000 points, Congress approved a $700 billion bailout and many financial pundits began forecasting a long recession.

On Tuesday, the board of aldermen will consider a firefighters contract that narrowly won budget committee approval and carries with it a $650,000 shortfall. Passing the contract requires only a simple majority of the 15-member board, but approving supplemental spending to cover the shortfall would need 10 votes.

The board will meet at 7:30 p.m. in the aldermanic chamber on the second floor of City Hall.

Alderman-at-Large Brian McCarthy said he doesn’t know if the nation’s financial crisis will have a trickle-down impact when the board considers the pact.

“It’s always a relevant concern when times are tight,” said McCarthy, who chairs the budget review committee. “We always need to manage spending as tightly as possible.”

However, Alderman-at-Large David Deane, a committee member, said he doubts the crisis will change anyone’s opinion of the contract.

“Do I think it’s going to sway anybody? No,” said Deane, who voted against the contract in committee.

In early September, the board sent the contract proposal back to the budget review committee because of confusion over the contract’s cost. In two subsequent committee meetings, Michael Gilbar, the city’s chief financial officer, crunched the numbers and confirmed the contract would create a $650,000 shortfall in the fire department’s budget.

On Sept. 29, days before the federal bailout and stock market plunge, the committee voted 4-3 to recommend passage of the contract.

Joining McCarthy to support the contract were Aldermen-at-Large Ben Clemons and Lori Wilshire and Ward 5 Alderman Michael Tabacsko. Joining Deane to oppose the contract were Ward 1 Alderman Mark Cookson and Ward 3 Alderman Michael Tamposi.

Two aldermen not on the committee, Alderman-at-Large Fred Teeboom and Ward 7 Alderman Richard Flynn, attended the meeting.

The contract with firefighters Local 789 is estimated to cost the city $18.11 million over five years. It covers 168 firefighters and extends retroactively from fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2011.

For those years, it gives firefighters average raises of 0 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.

The $650,000 shortfall rocked some aldermen. In several meetings, Deane grilled the fire commission chairman about how the commission could approve a contract without knowing how the contract would be funded.

At the Sept. 29 meeting, Teeboom said, “I don’t know where this money is supposed to come from.”

He added, “These contracts have to come in line. We just can’t afford to build up the city, take care of our buildings, take care of our infrastructure, take care of our economic condition and keep paying for these outrageous, way over-expensive contracts.”

Should the board approve the contract but not a supplemental appropriation to fund it, the fire department would have to fund it out of its contract, McCarthy said.

That could force the department to lay off 10 firefighters, Teeboom said, based on his calculations.

Clemons said he would support drawing the money out of the city’s unappropriated fund balance of $27 million. Tapping that money would be worth it to give raises to men and women who risk their lives protecting residents, Clemons said.

“If this means overriding the spending cap, then I’m willing to do it,” Clemons said. “I was elected to office to do the right thing, to do the right thing by the city of Nashua and to do the right thing by the taxpayers of Nashua.

“It is not the right thing to do, in my opinion, to let that money sit there that could be used for giving the firemen a decent wage and a raise they’ve deserved now for over two years.”

McCarthy noted the fund balance exists on paper and not in cash at hand.

“You can’t really equate it to money you can walk across the street and take out of the bank on a given day,” he said.

The board voted to keep a balance of at least 10 percent of the city budget, Deane said. That balance has helped put the city in good financial health and led to its strong bond rating of AA-plus, he said.

The money is there for emergencies, Deane said, citing the example of the city tapping the reserve several years ago when a school building’s roof collapsed because of heavy snow.

It shouldn’t be used for operational costs, he said.