The Representative Town Meeting on Monday night voted 41-3, with two abstentions, to approve a new contract -- set to expire in three months -- between the town and the union representing police officers.
Since the three-year pact -- with annual retroactive wage increases of 0 percent, 2 percent and 2.75 percent -- expires June 30, negotiations for another contract are expected to begin in the near future. The contract covers from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2013, and also includes an additional wage increase of 0.75 percent for officers on June 30.
Patrick McHale, the lawyer who represented the town in negotiations, said the last 0.75 percent wage boost on June 30 was "a compromise that was reached in order to avoid a significantly higher" wage increase in the contract's third year.
Peter Ambrose, R-2, said he favored the proposed contract because he didn't want to risk benefits the town had gained in negotiations by letting an arbitrator determine terms of a new contract.
"It's better for the town than the one the police union rejected in April of 2011," said Marc Patten, D-7. "It's not perfect, but it's a great step in the right direction."
Ambrose said the contract includes significantly smaller wage increases than past contracts (which had annual wage increases of 3 percent); increases officers' contributions toward their health benefits, and changes, from a dollar amount to a percentage amount, how that figure is calculated. "Both sides, the union and the town, acknowledge the tide has changed and economic realities have promoted a shift in the taxpayers' direction," Ambrose said.
The new contract also requires newly hired officers to pay a share of their post-retirement medical benefits when they retire.
Police Lt. Keith Broderick, president of C.O.P.S. Local 550, in a statement thanked the RTM for accepting the contract. "Officers have been working without a contract for three years and without a raise for four years," Broderick said in the statement. "We have agreed to significant concessions for this contract to be accepted."
"As the economy continues to improve, we hope the current administration and governing body of this town recognize this as we sit, in the very near future, to negotiate another contract," Broderick said in the statement. "The members of this department are a dedicated group that protects this town 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are deserving of a fair contract that is negotiated in a timely manner."
The issue of whether new police officers should have to go onto a defined contribution, or 401(a), retirement plan, instead of the current defined benefit, or standard pension, plan was briefly discussed.
Contracts that the town recently settled with unions representing Town Hall workers, public health nurses and Emergency Communications Center workers require new hires to go onto a 401(a) retirement plan, while new firefighters are given the option of either the 401(a) plan or existing pension plan.
McHale said the cost of a 401(a) plan for police officers was more expensive because the town would have to pay into the Social Security fund, pay for disability insurance and contribute into the 401(a) plan. He said the 401(a) plan would cost the town 20.5 percent of the department's pension-able payroll, compared to 14.9 percent for the current pension plan.
Under the contract approved Monday night, police officers hired after March 19 will receive a maximum of 70 percent of their base pay in their pensions, compared to 80 percent for existing officers, and the cost-of-living increase for pensions of new hires will be a maximum of 2 percent a year, compared to 3 percent a year for existing officers.
"The issue for the town of Fairfield became an issue of cost. You shouldn't assume a 401(a) plan will save us money as contrasted to a defined benefit plan," McHale said. He said the Fire Department offers a 401(a) plan, but wasn't aware of any firefighter who had signed up for it.
But Bruce Ryan, R-10, said the pension plan may be less expensive in the short term, but that wouldn't be the case further out. "It [the 401(a) plan] may cost us more today, but in the long run we're going to save a lot of money because the liability won't be there," Ryan said. "It's going to come from the taxpayer if we continue down this path of a defined benefit plan."
McHale said he had no evidence that the 401(a) plan would save the town money in the long-term. He said the 401(a) plan, based on what was proposed in April 2011, would cost more if the town funded the pension according to actuarial recommendations.
But Ryan replied, "Down the road, the town will have a liability it wouldn't have if somebody walks with a 401(a) plan."
Michael Herley, R-1, however, said police officers have "a very tough job."
"We're dealing with public safety here," Herley said. "It's a fair contract and I think we should all support it."
Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey said the defined benefit plan represents a long-term commitment by the town, but the RTM also had to consider that police officers make a long-term commitment to the town. "We certainly owe it to the taxpayers and all citizens of town to negotiate fair contracts, which I think this is," she said.
Police Chief Gary MacNamara said the lack of a contract since July 1, 2010, had left officers living with "a level of uncertainty."
"Some of our newer officers wonder whether they should look for employment elsewhere," MacNamara said, adding that the department needs officers who gather experience and training in Fairfield to stay in Fairfield. "Three years without a contract leads to quite a bit of distraction in a Police Department and it needs to be ratified."
MacNamara said Fairfield police officers care about the town and its well being and need to know the town cares about them as well.
Stephen Krauchick, the only member of the public to speak, said police officers had served through two hurricanes and a blizzard without a contract and recently were dispatched to a Sunnyridge Avenue standoff with an armed man. "They moved in without hesitation," said Krauchick, an online reporter, said of the standoff. He said the town had "proven itself as an anti-union town" by dragging its feet over contracts with unions representing town firefighters and nurses.
Kathryn Braun, R-8, supported the contract because she wanted "to have a clean slate going into the next negotiations."
"When this contract gets approved, it seems like we're going right into negotiations again," said Ed Bateson, R-3.