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Friday, September 9, 2011

Arbitration may cost jobs in Wallingford

As published in the Record Journal Friday September 9, 2011

By Robert Cyr

Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2224

WALLINGFORD — In most of the town’s labor negotiations in the past year, unions have emerged the winners in costly arbitration, which has some blaming the mayor’s demand for pay freezes.

Last week, a payment of $230,000 was awarded to the 55 members of United Public Service Employees Union Local 424, a management union with positions that include town planner, public works superintendent and tax collector. The town won’t be able to cover that solely by leaving vacant positions unfilled, so officials have pointed to layoffs as a potential solution.

Mediating attorney J. Larry Foy billed both the town and the union $10,812 each for his arbitration services. But in reality, other costs associated with arbitration pushed that figure to $17,338, said Terrence Sullivan, personnel director.

In every case the town is involved with binding arbitration, each side hires its own lawyer and pays half the fee for a third-party, neutral arbitrator. Along with court reporting fees and document copying, the arbitrators account for a large portion of the process, win or lose, he said.

“It’s a small price to pay to avoid wage increases; it isn’t wasteful and isn’t wrong,” Sullivan said. “Many times the union brings the town into the process, but now the town is driving arbitration and we’re being vilified for wasting the town’s resources. Sometimes it takes a fight to get the savings and language that we need.”

In the past 12 months the town has spent $42,300 on arbitration proceedings, including processes that awarded pay raises and other contract details to three unions, including the manager’s union. Arbitration with Local 1183 of the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees cost the town $12,346 last year, and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1326 cost taxpayers $12,566, Sullivan said. Those arbitration awards totaled more than $100,000.

The town avoided arbitration costs with school unions in February, when three chapters of the United Public Service Employees Union representing more than 60 workers in the school district were awarded four-year contracts by the Town Council.

Pay raises for the three unions amounted to $133,240.80, far less than the cost of arbitration, according to School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo. Menzo estimated the cost to arbitrate all three contracts between $42,000 and $45,000.

In late November, the council approved several internal transfers for the Public Utilities Department to cover an arbitration award for Local 1183 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents about 130 employees in the sewer, public works, clerical and emergency dispatch departments. Public Utilities Director George Adair has said there is no money to cover possible pay raises for one union still negotiating a contract with the mayor.

With the highest bond rating possible and millions of dollars in its reserve account, the town’s financial success and the conservative approach of its mayor, William W. Dickinson Jr., may make it an easy target for unions wanting more, some town officials have said. Dickinson’s $141.5 million budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, however, did not contain funding for wage increases in any department.

He stressed that the town is facing a decrease in its Grand List for the first time in more than 25 years, resulting in a revenue loss of more than $3 million.

“I don’t know how you tell the public that you’re agreeing to increases with the economy the way it is — with 9 percent unemployment,” he said. “Given the very challenging distress in the economy, there’s got to be recognition that government can’t continue as it did in the good times.”

Dickinson’s stance in union negotiations has been publicly challenged by his mayoral opponent, Democratic Town Councilor Vincent Testa Jr. Testa said the town takes a one-size-fits-all approach with collective bargaining, and that just hasn’t worked well so far.

“None of us want to see large raises when the economy is tough and we’re struggling with the tax dollars we have — but the simple fact is that, if you’re going into negotiations and you offer no pay raises for three years, you’re going to lose,” he said.

Local UPSEU Director Wayne Gilbert said the town’s stance is far too rigid with unions and more than half the negotiations end up in arbitration. He said the process put a strain on professional relationships and made it hard for things to get back to normal after the binding arbitration is finished and the awards announced.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous. It means you have to work extremely hard to present the case,” he said. “That kind of litigious nature doesn’t foster good relations between the parties. These are the employees who get water to your house, bring electricity to your house, plow your streets. They take care of the education of your children and grandchildren.”

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