New London - City firefighters, their families and supporters from across the state stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the hot hallway of City Hall Monday night, awaiting their fate.
On one side, behind wooden doors, the City Council had just tabled making a decision on a tentative agreement that would have saved 25 jobs in the fire department. On the other side, in an inner office behind sliding glass doors, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio was meeting with Rocco Basilica, president of the firefighters' union. Layoffs were set to take place at 5:30 p.m. the next day.
The fire department's rank-and-file were caught between the two branches of government over a tentative agreement with the union. The agreement would save the 25 jobs, give firefighters access to a defined benefit pension plan and save the city about $1 million by eliminating nine positions, reducing staffing levels and forgoing raises.
Some called for Finizio to come out and speak to them. Others began a slow hand clap to get his attention. The police showed up.
It was a tense moment, Basilica later said, but one that showed the emotion and strain the firefighters have been under for the past seven weeks, since a third of the department was handed pink slips.
The City Council had voted down the tentative agreement - twice at one meeting - and on Monday had postponed a third vote. The mayor had twice rescinded the layoffs, which originally were scheduled to take effect June 30, and this week, a temporary court order postponed the layoffs, at least until an Aug. 6 hearing.
"We want to move forward,'' Basilica said Thursday, admitting that he has behaved questionably at times during the ongoing discussions over the tentative agreement.
"This is a good deal we have on the table,'' he said. "Everyone should be focusing on the big picture."
Basilica and union Vice President Jonathan Paige, who is on the negotiating committee, sat down Thursday to talk about the agreement.
"We're giving up quite a bit,'' Paige said. "We're paying for everything we're getting."
The first item disposed of during the negotiations was saving the 25 jobs. Once that was figured out, the union negotiated to replace its 401(a) retirement plan with the defined benefit plan in the Connecticut Municipal Employees Retirement System.
CMERS is operated by the state and includes municipal employees; the New London police union members are part of CMERS. The state pension fund is a separate program that covers state police, correction employees and other state workers.
Some of the councilors have balked at the cost of joining CMERS. In order for the department's employees to join, the city would have to make an initial contribution estimated at about $13.5 million.
Paige said because firefighters would not join the system until sometime in February if the plan were approved, an estimated $11 million of that total would come from firefighters rolling over their 401(a) plans into CMERS.
The city would be responsible for the difference, which Paige said could be between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. The city could bond that amount, and with historically low interest rates, it would cost about $1 million in interest over 20 years, he said. Employees would be responsible for paying back any loans they have taken out against their 401(a)s.
Under CMERS, the city is required to contribute about 15.3 percent of the gross pay for all the firefighters, who also would contribute 5 percent. It would cost the city about $472,000 a year - about $222,000 in contributions to the retirement account and $250,000 in bond payments. Under the current plan, the city contributes about $400,000 a year to the 401(a) plan, Paige said.
Other savings would come from the reduction in minimum staffing from 18 to 16 per shift, the elimination of eight firefighters and one fire inspector, as well as raises the firefighters are giving up.
The city also would save money in the future, Paige said, because CMERS covers workers' compensation. Under the current agreement, the city pays those costs.
Under CMERS, firefighters also would be eligible to retire earlier, leaving openings for new workers who earn less money. Under the current retirement program, firefighters have no medical benefits until they are 65 and are not eligible for Social Security.
Older workers also are statistically more likely to get hurt or die on the job. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the average age a firefighter dies of a heart attack at is 53, Paige said.
"It's a young man's job,'' Basilica said, "not that the guys here are not doing the job. They have a higher rate of injuries."
The firefighters are looking for parity with other union workers in the city, he said.