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The two biggest public spaces on the fifth floor of City Hall are City Council Chambers and a one-toilet bathroom. They also may be the only places in the city where people aren't talking about the firefighters' contract.
Boston city councilors are slated to hold two public hearings Wednesday about a pay raise for firefighters. At issue is an award the firefighters got in April, when an arbitrator stipulated wage hikes and extra pay in exchange for regular drug and alcohol testing.
The cost of that award has become as contentious as the contract negotiations that pitted the City of Boston against the firefighters for four bitter years.
“We have to have balance in our contracts and my position is this contract isn't balanced.”-- Councilor Chuck Turner
The City Council needs to approve or reject funding for the contract award that was issued by an arbitrator at the beginning of May.
But good luck finding councilors to comment on the decision. Mum is the word for most of them.
The only councilor to come out against the firefighters’ contract is Councilor Chuck Turner.
“We have to have balance in our contracts and my position is this contract isn't balanced,” Turner said.
For those keeping score, this is the federally indicted Councilor Turner, facing trial for corruption.
And he's laughing that he's the only one who has been up front, saying the city can't afford the salary hike. That includes the 2.5 percent increase that is a quid pro quo for firefighters for having agreed to alcohol and drug testing.
Turner says public safety issues shouldn't be part of collective bargaining.
But Turner is not alone in warning that the city can’t afford the contract and the repercussions it will have in negotiating contracts with all the city's other unions. Mayor Thomas M. Menino insists — and two independent outside reports agree — the firefighters' contract will cost in the range of $74 million.
Council President Michael Ross says the city may have the funds to cover their contract — but only because of layoffs and closing community centers and libraries.
Mark Ciommo, one of the few city councilors who agreed to comment for this story, says his constituents are concerned about the firefighters’ contract.
“There is a lot of unemployed tradesmen that I talk to. I live in a blue-collar neighborhood,” Ciommo said. “Do firefighters deserve raises? Absolutely. But saying that, this is where we are now.”
But where the councilors are now is unclear. Councilor-at-Large Steve Murphy, who's running for state treasurer and touting his ability at money management, has been unavailable for interviews. Last week he rolled out his campaign at the headquarters of the Boston Firefighters Local.
Councilor-at-Large John Connolly says he's an undecided — and that's all he has to say for now.
The councilors who do speak have been extra-diplomatic toward the firefighters.
“I feel that the impact may be a little too much right now and with a little compromise this could go forward and we could put it all behind us,” Ciommo said.
Last year, 22 unions — that's about half the city's unions — agreed to defer their wage increases for a year. This year, one of those groups, the janitors, will see a fourth of its members laid off.
Council President Michael Ross, who has called for concessions from the firefighters, says the city may have the funds to cover their contract — but only because of layoffs and closing community centers and libraries.
“We owe it to ourselves and our families to stand up for what is right. We played by the rules.”-- Union President Ed Kelly
Ross says the firefighters’ contract award is in jeopardy.
“I do not believe that they have the votes to pass this. I think they would have to come forward with a significant concession and recognize what other unions have across the country and here locally,” Ross said.
That significant concession could be deferring the 2.5 percent salary increase for accepting drug and alcohol testing. That's one idea from an outside consultant, which several councilors are advancing, including Ross.
Still, Ross doesn't think negotiations are going to go very far.
“The reality is, there does not appear to be any interest on the other side,” Ross said, referring to the Firefighters Union and its president, Ed Kelly.
Kelly said he and the firefighters don't have anything they need to concede.
“It's not an unfair award,” said Kelly. “We owe it to ourselves and our families to stand up for what is right. We played by the rules.”
And that would seem to be that.
City councilors at Wednesday's hearings will hear all kinds of numbers, semantics and competing analysis of the costs of the contract. In any case, they won’t be voting up or down. The first time they can vote on it is a week from Wednesday.
This program aired on June 2, 2010.
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