Firefighters union OKs new agreement

NASHUA – Five months after their last pact was shot down by a mayoral veto, city fire commissioners and the firefighters union have approved a second tentative agreement.

This time, it has the mayor’s blessing.

The Board of Fire Commissioners on Monday voted unanimously to approve a contract that had to be re-hashed out at the bargaining table after Mayor Donnalee Lozeau’s Oct. 21 veto.

Members of Local 789 of the International Association of Firefighters unanimously approved the new contract last week, according to a union official.

The contract will be presented to the Board of Aldermen at its meeting next week.

Lozeau said Monday that she would endorse the new agreement.

“I think it was a very creative way to try to come in and benefit everybody,” Lozeau said Monday night. “I’m really pleased with what they’ve done.”

Like its predecessor, the contract for 168 firefighters and related fire department jobs would have extended retroactively from fiscal year 2007 through fiscal year 2011.

But changes in the new contract keep it within the $1.24 million contingency set aside in the current fiscal year budget. The vetoed contract would have spent $680,000 above that contingency and would have required aldermen to approve a supplemental appropriation to fund.

Aldermen approved the contract by 8-6, with a member absent, but later failed to muster the 10 votes needed to override the mayor’s veto.

The new pact carries much of the same language. The dates in which union concessions take effect were changed, and some language was tweaked in other areas, according to city attorney Stephen Bennett.

But the biggest changes are in salaries.

The contract that the fire commission approved Monday has a zero percent raise for Fiscal Year 2007, 4 percent for 2008, 3.5 percent for 2009, 2.5 percent for 2010 and 2.5 percent for 2011.

By comparison, the vetoed contract would have given firefighters for those years average raises of zero percent, 4.70 percent, 5.68 percent, 5.72 percent and 4.69 percent, respectively.

Estimates for the total cost of the contract weren’t available Monday. The vetoed contract had an estimated $81 million price tag over five years.

Both contracts contained union health-care concessions, such as increasing firefighters’ co-pay from 5 to 10 percent. The newer contract would have the concessions kick in July 1.

Also, changes in how firefighters move up steps were made to even out spikes in raises some firefighters would receive. Under the vetoed contract, some firefighters would have received pay increases of 19 percent or higher for certain years.

“What this has done was flatten out the spike in wages,” Bennett said of the change.

“There’s been a considerable amount of good faith and trust on both sides in an attempt to work out particularly the wage agreement,” Bennett said.

Fire commissioners and union officials praised the contract and the work that went into forging the agreement.

Commission Chairman Paul Garant praised the hours of work put in by everyone, including city staff.

Fire Lt. Mark Wholey, a union representative, said the union wanted to get the money set aside for firefighters while times were good but was willing to accept lower raises in the coming years because of the economic downturn.

“The majority of our membership lives in the community. They’re going through the same tough financial times as everybody else,” Wholey said.

Bennett noted, “It’s tough to be negotiating a contract when suddenly the economy goes downhill.”

During the meeting, Fire Commissioner Kevin Gage asked what the contract would do to the fire department’s overall budget, especially since the mayor has asked all departments to submit budgets with spending increases of no more than 1 percent.

“I don’t like going into something and not knowing where the bottom line is,” Gage said.

Fire Chief Brian Morrissey said the department budget increase now is at 2.3 percent, but the spending plan is still a work in progress, and fire administrators are meeting this week with city financial staff.

It continues to be the hope that the department will meet the 1 percent request, Garant said.

“It appears we will be very close once we’re all said and done,” Garant said.

Lozeau, who didn’t attend the fire commission meeting, said she is sticking by her budget parameters for the fire department.

“I’m counting on the department and the commissioners to bring their budget in at my request of 1 percent or under,” Lozeau said.