Photo: Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media
BRIDGEPORT — Despite questions about whether Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration drove a hard enough bargain, a City Council committee has approved a five-year police contract with 9.5 percent total raises.
“It sends the wrong kind of message,” Councilman Ernie Newton, a Contracts Committee co-chairman, told his colleagues, Sgt. Chuck Paris, head of the police union, and Labor Relations Director Janene Hawkins on Tuesday night.
Newton was referring to the 1 percent retroactive raise the cops would receive for the first year of their new pact, which begins July 1, 2016, and is part of a total 9.5 percent pay hike.
The proposed contract now heads to the full City Council for a vote on approval.
In 2016, Ganim, a Democrat who ran the city in the 1990s, had just been re-elected and he and the all-Democrat council were trying to balance that year’s budget with labor concessions. Newton noted that other municipal employees gave up raises in the first year of new contracts.
“I was always under the impression the police department had agreed to a zero increase,” Newton said. “I need to understand how this 1 percent got in here. … Most (other) unions I spoke to say, ‘Ernie, why you treating the police department better than us?’ ”
Bridgeport’s Finest rejected a proposed cop contract with a one-year pay freeze in January 2018 in a setback for Ganim, who received strong support for his 2015 comeback from Paris and his members.
The two sides resumed negotiations, resulting in the pending deal cops approved in late April. On top of the 1 percent salary increase, union members would receive two other retroactive raises — 2.5 percent for 2017 and 2 percent for 2018 — plus 2 percent increases this coming July and next.
Hawkins told Newton that because the city and union were involved in a binding arbitration process, where an independent third party could eventually force a settlement, the administration decided it was cheaper to reach a deal that included all five raises.
Newton argued that the city caved, and other staff will going forward use the threat of arbitration to get what they want.
“Unions will say, ‘All we gotta do is go to binding arbitration,’ ” Newton said.
Paris argued there was no guarantee the arbitrator would have supported a pay freeze in the first year of the contract. And, the union president added, the contract provides savings and new revenue to the city — benefits that could ultimately have been rejected by the arbitrator should that process have continued.
For example, while officers working “outside overtime” for construction contractors would see their hourly $56.23 rate rise, the proposed cop pact simultaneously ups what those contractors and utilities reimburse the city for use of those police by $7 an hour. Paris estimated that would add up to around $700,000 annually.
Give and take
The new contract would also curtail overtime by reducing from eight to four the mandatory hours an off-duty officer called in on a day off must be paid.
“It’s not a big savings, but it’s a good-faith effort,” said Council President Aidee Nieves.
And the deal also limits the amount of time officers under investigation could be placed on paid leave to 180 days unless there is an agreement with the city. This was a joint effort by the Ganim administration and union to expedite months-long internal probes that leave their subjects in limbo.
“As long as they’re sitting home, they’re not doing any good — and they’re getting paid,” Paris said.
Councilwoman Maria Zambrano Viggiano, who sits on the Contracts Committee and co-chairs the Budget Committee, cast the lone “no” vote on Tuesday for the police contract. She took issue with guaranteeing off-duty officers a minimum of four hours of pay if called to work.
Bridgeport’s Finest already are notorious for racking up large overtime payments and annually running a few million dollars over their overtime budget.
“I was a teacher,” Viggiano said. “On paper I worked 40 hours. Off paper, 70. I didn’t get paid for those 30 hours.”
Paris tried to address any resentment other city workers might feel about Bridgeport police.
“We do have some things other unions might not have, and we respect and appreciate that,” he said. “We’re not trying to be unreasonable at all.”
The Contracts Committee barely discussed another benefit cops would receive in the five-year labor pact — a one year freeze on an increase in health care contributions. Since 2012, under Mayor Bill Finch, new officers have seen their contributions — currently around 32 percent — rise 1 percent per year, eventually capping off at 50 percent.
In 2018, Paris attributed the defeat of the contract to newer recruits’ frustration with the health plan.
“They’re paying 31 percent — over $200 a week,” Paris said at that time. “They’re lowest paid in the department and forced to pay the highest cost for health care.”
And, Paris noted, newer officers also do not enjoy post-retirement health care.
Another lingering dispute between the cops and the city — switching the police to a state health care initiative that Paris had claimed offered a better plan with a lower cost — was settled last spring when the Ganim administration concluded that moving all municipal unions into the state plan would save millions of dollars.