Stamford Advocate (Sunday)
Clock is ticking on union giveback
City, school officials are looking to make up for revenue shortfall in budget
STAMFORD — The deadline for a $35 million budget cut is looming, and officials have set their sights on the city’s biggest expense — employee salaries and benefits.
It accounts for 80 percent of all the money the city spends.
For the more than 3,000 city and school employees, most of them members of one of 14 unions, these are nerve-wracking days. There is talk of wage cuts, furloughs and layoffs.
Nothing is clear. Union leaders said city officials sent them a letter at the end of April saying that, because of a large revenue shortfall resulting from the quarantine imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus, they wanted to talk. But talks are just getting under way, and time is running out, union leaders said.
The Board of Finance, which has been meeting with Mayor David Martin and Superintendent Tamu Lucero for guidance on the massive cuts, must make its budget recommendations by May 27. The deadline for the Board of Representatives to pass a budget is June 4.
Martin identified some program cuts and expendable positions in his $223 million proposed budget, and Lucero found $3 million in savings in her $301 million proposed budget.
But if the substantive cuts are to come from the unions, it’s not clear what they will look like.
Not much word
“The letter the city sent said they would be scheduling meetings with all unions. For us, that meeting has not been scheduled,” said Sgt. Kris Engstrand, president of the 270-member Stamford Police Association. “I’m not sure what they want to ask us for because we have no contract. Ours expired last June.”
The situation is similar with the 250-member Stamford Professional Firefighters Association, said Capt. David Davis, the president. That contract also expired last year.
“We received notification that they wanted to meet by April 27 at the latest. The city’s outside counsel contacted our counsel to exchange dates, but nothing came of it,” Davis said. “We have not met.”
Dan Colleluori, president of the Stamford Municipal Supervisory Employees Union, known as the MAA, said the first meetings with union leaders happened Wednesday, and there were a couple on Thursday. His 115-member union met with the city Friday, Colleluori said.
“They offered things, but we’re far apart,” Colleluori said. “We’ve been out of contract since July 2017. Their proposal is not a short-term proposal. It’s basically a contract proposal.”
The mayor’s office would not discuss the talks with city unions.
“The city does not comment on personnel issues, including ongoing negotiations with unions,” said Arthur Augustyn, Martin’s spokesman.
Diane Phanos, president of the Stamford Education Association, which represents 1,200 teachers, said she and her executive board met with Lucero, three school board members, and the district’s finance and human resources directors about a week ago.
“They were not negotiations. Those are bound by ground rules and we have no ground rules established,” Phanos said. “We agreed to come to a meeting to listen.”
Thursday afternoon she received two documents from the superintendent’s office, one laying out salary reductions and the other laying out reductions in programs and positions, she said.
“It was, either give up all of this or take salary cuts,” Phanos said Friday. “I have not had any discussion with the superintendent since receiving this.”
Lucero said in an email through a spokeswoman that the finance board is considering keeping the school budget the same in the fiscal year that starts July 1 as it is this year.
That would mean a $15 million reduction of Lucero’s proposed 2020-21 budget, a move that “would profoundly affect all members of the Stamford Public Schools community,” she said.
“Accordingly, we have reached out to all four of the Board of Education bargaining units to discuss whether we can come up with alternative ways to reduce expenditures next year,” Lucero said.
Finance board members have said the city and school district must split the $35 million budget cut. State law prohibits cities from cutting annual school board budgets below what they are in the existing year. It means Lucero’s proposed 2020-21 budget, which now stands at $298 million, cannot be cut below this year’s budget of $283 million. So it can’t be cut more than $15 million.
“We’re working on the fact that the superintendent is looking for $15 million,” Phanos said. “She said it would mean cuts to programs, positions and salary concessions. So we’re talking major cuts.”
The teachers’ contract expires in 2021.
“We would have to reopen the portion of the contract they are discussing with us,” Phanos said.
Eugene Molgano, vice president of the Stamford Board of Education Employees Association, which represents custodians and trades workers, said he could not comment because his union is in active talks with the city about their contract. It expired two years ago.
“All I can say is the BoEEA has been approached for cutbacks,” Molgano said.
Against the clock
Arriving at the kinds of concenssions the city is seeking takes time, Engstrand and Davis said.
“If the city makes a proposal, I have to bring it to the Board of Trustees — they’re the negotiating body. Then they bring it to the membership,” Engstrand said. “This is not a quick fix based on a timeline. It doesn’t happen fast.”
The Board of Finance’s May 27 deadline to set its budget recommendation does not allow enough time to gather firefighters working on different schedules, Davis said.
“Whatever the city proposes has to go to the members for a vote. I would have to call up a virtual meeting for everybody,” he said. “We couldn’t make that date.”
A rainy day?
Davis said he has been listening to finance board meetings with the mayor. Board members have asked Martin whether a portion of a $14.3 million surplus from the 2019-20 budget can be used to operate the city in 2020-21. Martin dedicated a portion of the surplus to road paving; $11.5 million remains, his office said.
“The city is crying dire straits and looking for concessions from the unions at a time when I don’t see other towns pushing the issue,” Davis said. “Why are we going through this? Cut back on road work. People are losing their jobs and businesses. The roads can wait.”
Engstrand, who said he also listens to the finance board webinars, wants to know why the city can’t use some of its Rainy Day Fund to mitigate the revenue losses. As of July 1, the start of this fiscal year, the Rainy Day Fund contained about $26 million, according to Martin’s office.
“I heard the mayor say some of these things are not good financial practices, but this is not changing principles. It’s responding to an emergency,” Engstrand said. “Doesn’t it make sense to borrow from yourself instead of cutting first responders during a pandemic? I mean, could there be a more rainy day than this?”