EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 19, 2013

Lawrence firefighters approve contract

By Keith Eddings
keddings@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — City firefighters will receive no raises for the two years they have been without a contract and 2.5 percent raises over each of the next two years under a contract they overwhelmingly approved in two days of voting this week.

The retroactive wage freeze followed by the successive 2.5 percent raises match what the city’s two other public safety unions — the police rank and file and superior officers — recently negotiated.

The settlement leaves just one major city union, a Service Employees International Union local that represents about 150 clerical, school and public works employees, without a contract. SEIU spokesman Ike Gabriel has said he is hoping for terms similar to what the police received.

The firefighters approved the new contract in an 81-17 vote that occurred over two days, ending Wednesday night. It expires June 30, 2013.

Union president Patrick Driscoll did not return phone calls.

The contract settlement resolves one source of anxiety and contention between the firefighters and the city, even as another is rapidly surfacing.

The federal grant that has paid the salaries of 31 firefighters for the last two years expires in August and Mayor William Lantigua has not yet said how many, if any, firefighters he may layoff when the grant runs out.

Meeting with the City Council Tuesday night, Robert Nunes, the city’s state-appointed fiscal overseer, held out little hope that the city will be able to afford the $2.1 million it would cost — not including the cost of health benefits — to keep all 31 firefighters on the job through the end of the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. He said the challenge deepened this week when Jeff Riley, the state-appointed receiver running city schools, released a budget that would require $1.6 million more from the city.

“Funding 31 firefighters and $1.6 million for the schools is impossible,” Nunes warned the council. “It’s absolutely impossible. The city doesn’t have that much money. It’s just impossible to do it all.”

Lantigua is scheduled to release a budget for Fiscal Year 2014 on May 28.

The firefighters’ union has 126 members, including the 31 funded by the federal grant. If all 31 are retained, the 2.5 percent raise firefighters would receive next year will cost the city $500,000, Fire Chief Jack Bergeron said.

The new contract includes no givebacks by the union, adjusts the formula for calculating longevity and gives firefighters more flexibility in scheduling the three personal days off that they receive, Bergeron said. Health benefits are unchanged.

The contract needs the City Council’s approval to take effect.

Councilor Daniel Rivera, who chairs the council’s budget committee and is running for mayor, has said the money the raises would cost would be better spent to retain some of the 31 firefighters facing layoffs this summer.

“You can’t promise people raises when you don’t have the money to fund it.” Rivera said. “A small amount of people will be very happy. A large group will be unsafe.”