By Ron Leir
It’s not quite signed, sealed and delivered but at least Kearny and the firefighters union finally appear to be on the same page.
All it took was one joint session with state-appointed arbitrator Frank Mason on Oct. 5 and – after union members voted narrowly to accept the proposal – suddenly, there was an agreement on a new labor contract – all the more surprising since months of previous bargaining had produced no less than three separate votes by the union members rejecting the town’s proposals.
The old contract between the town and the Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association Local 18, which represents the 60 rank-and-file members of the Kearny Fire Dept., expired June 30.
Now, while both sides are “still negotiating minor issues,” according to Mayor Alberto Santos, both have agreed to accept the arbitrator’s recommendation for new salary guides for both current firefighters and for any new firefighters hired after the new contract takes effect.
By state law, Mason had 45 days from the time the town applied for arbitration to come up with a decision, which would be Nov. 8. But, if both sides agree to accept his recommendations before the November deadline, he won’t have to issue a written decision.
The proposed pact – which will go before the Town Council for approval on Oct. 23 – would run four and a half years, from July 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2016, Santos said.
The settlement calls for a freeze of existing firefighters’ pay scales for the first six months of the agreement, from July 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2012, followed by nominal pay increases for each of the four years thereafter.
It would also create a two-tier system which extends the number of years that new hires have to work before reaching the top step of the salary guide, from the current seven years to 14 years.
Also, effective immediately, it would increase the prescription drug co-pay for current and retired firefighters, from $1 to $3 for generic drugs, and from $5 to $10 for name-brand drugs, Santos said.
For the monetary portion of the contract, recently revised state labor law mandates arbitrators assigned to referee contractual disputes involving public safety employees to be guided by a “… 2% limit on the aggregate amount expended by the public employer on base salary items … in the 12 months immediately preceding the end of the expired contract ….”
Santos said the new law “significantly reduces the rate of growth of police and fire salaries” because it factors in contractual step increments already built into the contract.
According to Santos, here’s the basis for what the arbitrator had to work with on the FMBA award: Salaries for Kearny firefighters for the last 12 months of the old contract totaled $5.99 million; take 2% of that figure and you get $119,800 – the maximum annual amount salaries could be increased. Discounting the six-month pay freeze, multiply that figure by 4 (the number of years remaining in the new contract) and you come up with $539,104 – the increase in pay to be spread out over the four-year period.
That represents a 9% hike in pay but Santos said that’s a lot better than what Kearny FMBA Local 218, representing Fire Dept. officers, got from arbitrator James Mastriani in 2009, with an award of “a four-year contract (retroactive to Jan. 1, 2007) on top of a step guide for which the cost was well over 20%.”
In any event, Santos is confident that the town will be able to recoup the additional $539,104 it will pay out between now and 2016 by pocketing the savings resulting from replacing anticipated firefighter retirees during that time with newbies, thereby avoiding any possible tax increase.
Assuming council approval of the new contract, those FMBA members already at maximum base pay of $98,823 a year (a bit more than half of the department’s 60 firefighters) would receive annual pay increases of $1,000 in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016, raising maximum pay to $102,823 over the life of the contract.
Proposed new pay levels for firefighters on other steps of the salary guide weren’t available at press time.
Firefighters hired after July 1, 2012 (the new contract’s start date) would, in effect, have to work twice as long as the current firefighters to achieve top base pay. They’d start at $33,000 and, with increments averaging at about $5,000 a year, reach $102,823 after completing 14 years. Currently, for their first four months, firefighters earn $30,374 as an Academy trainee, then go to $37,664 as a “probationary” firefighter for a year, and then receive annual increments that bring them to $98,823 after completing seven years.
Iselin attorney James Mets, counsel to Local 18, couldn’t be reached for comment.