Published on Oct. 17 at 5:30 a.m.
Superior Court Judge Brian Stern Wednesday morning ordered the Central Coventry Fire District Board of Directors to vote on whether to accept a tentative agreement from the firefighters' union by Friday. The agreement would contain a number of concessions negotiated by the board and union over the past several months including elimination of wage increases, decreased staffing and reductions in paid holidays, sick leave, longevity, comp time value, clothing allowances, as well as tuition, medical and training expenses. If approved, the concessions will serve as cost-saving measures for the cash-strapped fire district.
According to union attorney Marc Gursky, firefighters have made upwards of $1 million in additional contract concessions in an attempt to help formulate a balanced budget for fiscal 2013-2014. He expressed optimism that the tentative agreement between the two groups will be ratified by the union on Thursday morning and urged board members to do the same during a public information session scheduled for that evening. Gursky thanked the board members who attended negotiation sessions for making them "very productive".
"We wouldn't be proposing this tentative agreement unless we think it works," he said. "It's going to be tight. It will require cooperation rather than confrontation and rhetoric like we've seen over the course of the year. I think that when we left negotiations, we felt that Mr. D'Agostino, and certainly the board members there, were willing to be fair with the firefighters, and I hope they felt the same way about the union being fair to the board."
Board counsel David D'Agostino briefly broke down the proposed $5.6 million budget, pointing out a $400,000 figure annually allocated to paying down the district's outstanding debt. One somewhat controversial item missing from the proposed budget is the cost of street lights within the Central Coventry Fire District, eliminating a $166,000 cost. D'Agostino explained that without street lighting, the district would see a deficit of about $21,000 after other expenses -- a figure he felt could be absorbed throughout the course of the year with little difficulty. However including the lighting bill in the budget would amount to an approximate deficit of $187,000, which D'Agostino deemed near impossible to make up for.
"With 80 percent of the overall district budget going to personnel, there aren't a lot of places for the board to go to find money, so it came down to services," he said. "You can't really attack the fire suppression and EMS side without getting into the union contract, so the only other service to cut is lighting."
"We've got a situation that was created over a period of years and this board is trying to solve the problem and put a roadmap to the future in what amounts to months and weeks," D'Agostino continued. "We're cautiously optimistic that with some manipulations to the budget and some manipulations to how the district is managed, we can bridge that gap. But it's not gong to be easy to be sure."
Judge Stern noted that Board President Fred Gralinski didn't seem to share Gursky or D'Agostino's optimism about budget figures or the possibility of the union and board coming to a suitable contract agreement, after Gralinski commented that he felt union members went into negotiations with a "take it or leave it attitude" and made little effort.
"Our greatest concern is running out of money before the year ends. We have so few management rights once this year begins that we might as well go fishing," he said.
"If the board approves a tentative union agreement, does that mean we're balanced for this fiscal year or not?" Judge Stern asked.
"No. If we can make it, it would have to be with the union making concessions that aren't on paper," answered Gralinski. "They have control over that. What I see in writing won't balance the budget. If that's the case, we won't make it will only increase the debt next year."
Judge Stern suggested that if a union agreement and balanced budget can't be reached, the board might consider closing the fire district as a better option than allowing operations to continue under the current circumstances. If board members reject the union's tentative agreement Thursday, they will vote to recommend that the court authorize Special Master Rick Land to close and liquidate the fire district. In this event, taxpayers would still need to vote on a proposed budget and tax rate Monday night, as funds would required to both operate or liquidate the district.
"I've heard a lot from both sides and can certainly understand how tense this is and how reasonable minds may differ in terms of what the best way to go forward is for the fire district," said Judge Stern. "But both the union membership and the board of directors tomorrow have some very consequential decisions to make about the future of the fire district itself."
Union members will vote on the tentative contract agreement Thursday morning and board members will do so during the public information session scheduled for 7 p.m. that night at the Coventry Town Hall Annex. The district's annual budget meeting will take place at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 21 at Coventry High School.