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Claremont Union Takes To Airwaves

Radio Ad Criticizes City  For Not Agreeing to Contract

Claremont — The long-running contract dispute between the city and the union representing police and public works employees has spilled onto the airwaves.

A commercial began airing last week on three area radio stations criticizing the city for failing to negotiate a new contract with the union, which has not had an agreement since 2008.

Sponsored by the American Federation of School, County and Municipal Employees, the ad states that while union members have not had pay raises, the city has given raises to nonunion workers, including some department heads.

“This is something we wanted to get out there,” said Lt. Andrew O’Hearne, the union representative for the police department, of the pay raises given to nonunion employees the last few years. “The overall goal is public awareness. We don’t think the public knows what is going on.”

O’Hearne said he spoke with the AFSCME Council in Boston to develop the wording for the advertisement.

Talks between the city and the unions representing police, public works and firefighters have stalled primarily over the issue of health insurance and how much of the premiums employees should pay in exchange for a wage increase. Currently, union members pay nothing. Firefighters are represented by a separate union.

O’Hearne, who also serves the city as a state representative, said the impasse has lowered morale and led several officers to leave for other departments.

“We are in the process of losing another officer,” O’Hearne said. “It is to the point (for many) that the hours and pay are not worth the hassle.”

City Manager Guy Santagate said Monday that indeed there have been raises given out to “merit” plan employees during the impasse with the unions.

“It is not just department heads, like the police chief, it is other merit plan employees,” Santagate said. “In some cases, they took on more responsibility, but others’ (wages) were way out of line in comparison (to similar positions in other communities.) These are adjustments and we are going to continue to do that.”

As for the union radio ad, which urges city residents to call his office to demand action on the union contracts, Santagate said he welcomes the dialogue it could create.

“I don’t mind the ad and I don’t mind hearing from people,” he said. “They can tell me — whether they are for or against what we are doing. I will tell them what we can pay for and what we can’t afford.”

Santagate said in addition to health insurance, retirement costs have also increased for the city because the state no longer pays a portion of the contributions for each employee.

“So it is not just salaries, but a rich benefits program,” the city manager said.

In May, the City Council rejected a fact finder’s report that sided with the union on the percentage employees should pay for health insurance.

Allan McCausland, the fact finder, recommended for health insurance employees pay 1.25 percent of their base salary the first year of a contract, 2.5 percent the second year and 4 percent the third year with the premium co-pay never to exceed 10 percent of the premium.

The city wanted 5 percent and 10 percent premium co-pays along with $500 to $1,500 deductibles and an increase in medical visit co-pays. McCausland rejected the new policy with deductibles and co-pays on medical visits, saying those costs would eat up any salary increase

Finance Director Mary Walter told the council in May that if the report were accepted and the recommendations were incorporated into a new contract, it would result in layoffs unless the bottom line of the budget is increased.

Mayor Jim Neilsen reiterated that conclusion on Monday, warning that union positions would have to be cut for the city to afford the benefits. “It will be paid for in jobs,” Neilsen said.

O’Hearne questioned why the same logic does not apply to raises for so-called merit employees.

“They gave directors raises but there were no layoffs,” O’Hearne said, adding that the annual half-percent step increase police receive amounts to about 9 cents an hour for most officers.

Neilsen said the city has available a finite pool of money for wages, benefits or a combination of both, and that the union’s position is more than the city can afford.

“That has been our position all along,” he said.

AFSCME spokesperson Jim Durkin, with the Boston office, said airing commercials about a union’s position while negotiations are ongoing is not a “tactic of first resort.”

“But they are going on six years without a pay raise and that is far too long,” Durkin said. “It is an extreme set of circumstances coupled with the generous pay raises (to others). Enough is enough.”

Santagate said the ad wouldn’t affect the city’s promise to negotiate in good faith.

“Making it a public issue is OK with me,” he said, “but if they want to go public, I need to respond.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at ogrady56@yahoo.com