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Northampton firefighters' union says mayor misleading on finances in lead up to contract vote

Northampton firefighters responded to a fire in building two of Meadowbrook Apartments in Florence Monday afternoon.
KEVIN GUTTING

Northampton firefighters responded to a fire in building two of Meadowbrook Apartments in Florence Monday afternoon. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

In the complaint filed with the state Department of Labor, Northampton Firefighters Local 108 claims the mayor undervalued the city’s free cash in information he provided to the City Council as it weighed whether to fund the contract as set out in the ruling.

The council voted 5-3 at its July 11 meeting not to accept the ruling, with most councilors citing finances as the reason.

“The mayor’s false information led the City Council to falsely conclude that the city could not fund the award,” the complaint states.

Narkewicz, in a statement Tuesday, said the charges filed by the union “lack merit and are not supported by the facts” and that the Department of Labor’s investigation will bear this out.

Meanwhile, both sides said Tuesday they are eager to get back to the bargaining table, though progress has been stymied by disagreements over whether Fire Chief Brian Duggan should be part of the process.

The union complaint asks the state to “make whole all employees for the loss of wage and benefit increases they suffered as a result of the city’s conduct.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Labor said an investigator from that office is reviewing the complaint and is expected to determine “very soon” whether the charge has merit and can move forward.

In addition to supporting the Joint Labor Management Committee for Police and Fire decision and recommending its funding to the council, Narkewicz said he provided true and accurate data to city councilors in response to their information requests.

The attorney representing the union, Terence E. Coles, said at the council’s July 11 meeting that the union might take legal action.

At that meeting, Coles cited a December 2012 press release from Narkewicz’s office declaring that the city had $2.8 million in free cash certified by the state for fiscal 2013, yet the mayor submitted documentation to the council showing about $278,300 in free cash.

Coles called it a “deliberate misrepresentation” a violation of the law.

In its complaint, the union alleges a document the mayor provided to the council undervalued the city’s free cash during a four-year period from fiscal 2010-14 by using the free cash balance as of June 30 of each fiscal year, rather than the free cash amounts certified by the state Department of Revenue later in the year.

“By doing so, Mayor Narkewicz gave the City Council a false impression of the city’s reserve funds, suggesting that the retroactive pay would have a much larger impact on the city’s reserve funds than was actually the case,” the complaint states.

Coles declined to discuss the complaint Tuesday.

At the July 11 meeting, Narkewicz explained that the financial documents he submitted at the council’s request reflected a snapshot of the city’s financial standing as of June 30. He said there is no free cash when the fiscal year ends on June 30 until it is recertified by the Department of Revenue later in the fall. While $2.8 million was certified by the state last fiscal year, the council has spent much of that money.

“I can’t say we still have the $2 million when you’ve appropriated it and already spent that money,” he told the council. “I’m trying to give you a sense of where we are right now, here and now today.”

In his statement Tuesday, Narkewicz also looked ahead.

“I remain committed to achieving a positive contract resolution for our firefighters and, to that end, renew my request to Local 108 to meet with the fire chief and me to discuss a path forward,” he said.

In a letter exchange, both sides are arguing over whether Duggan should be part of the proceedings. The union has expressed no confidence in Duggan and said negotiations would go more smoothly without his presence. The city’s attorney’s countered that excluding the fire chief from negotiations is unacceptable.

Should the Department of Labor allow the complaint to move forward, it would go to a more formal administrative court proceeding within that state department.

The union and the city have been at an impasse on the contract for some time after on-and-off negotiations failed. Both sides agreed last year to air their cases before the arbitration panel that settles contract disputes between municipalities and fire and police departments.

In its June 26 ruling, the three-member arbitration panel from the JLMC granted the union three years’ worth of pay raises. The roughly 2 percent annual raises would have required the city to pay more than $406,000 in back wages, plus another $222,200 for union members’ salaries in the current fiscal year based on the new hourly rates created by the retroactive wage increases.

State law binds the union and Narkewicz, as the chief executive of the city, to support the ruling, though legislative bodies are not obligated to fund such agreements. When funding is not approved, the arbitration decision is no longer binding and negotiations resume anew.

There is a clause in the state law that states either party or the JLMC can seek to enforce committee rulings in superior court.

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