AMSTERDAM — The Common Council voted 4-0 this week to approve a new two-year contract extension for the Fire Department, completing Mayor Michael Villa’s overhaul of the city’s seven union contracts and leaving an enduring influence over how the city will do business well into his successor’s tenure in office.
Mayor-elect Michael Cinquanti said he was given a copy of the new Fire Department contract before the council approved it, but he would have preferred the council wait to vote until he took office.
“If I was a lame-duck mayor, I certainly would have waited until the new mayor took office with any major action like this being taken at this time,” Cinquanti said. “It’s not my prerogative as mayor-elect [to control this], but if I was the mayor I would not do this to the next incoming mayor. I would sit down and talk to him and go over the new contract line-by-line.”
Cinquanti, backed by the Democrats, Conservatives and several other minor parties, defeated Villa, a Republican, by a final count of 1,743 to 1,317 votes in last month’s election. But when Cinquanti takes office in January he’ll be running a city still largely controlled by decisions Villa made in his final year in office, thanks to labor contract settlements and a flurry of late-term appointments to key city positions.
Villa said his administration had been renegotiating the fire department contract since it expired in 2017, but wasn’t able to settle a new deal before the election.
Over the last eight months Villa’s administration has wrapped up new labor deals for the city’s police, DPW and now fire unions, all of which had expired contracts previously negotiated under Mayor Ann Thane, but were still in effect throughout Villa’s tenure.
Villa said the finalization of the firefighter union deal was delayed by about six to seven weeks because one of the city’s negotiators from Albany-based law firm Roemer Wallens & Mineaux broke his hip.
The memorandum of agreement presented to the Common Council on Tuesday had November listed as the date next to the signature lines, but no specific day. Villa would not say if there were any specific sticking points that held up settling the contract for the Fire Department before the election. He said negotiations were completed after the Nov. 5 election, but he doesn’t think the impending change in administrations played any role in the final deal.
“This has been two years. I can’t negotiate a contract thinking about whether or not I’m going to get re-elected. That nonsense about ‘lame duck’, there was no lame duck in 2017 or 2018 or coming up to this year,” Villa said. “I think [Cinquanti is] misinformed. This was done with a reputable law firm, with Pat Beck, with Kim Brumley, and the only input that I had was I reviewed what the negotiations were, and I laid out my foundation of what I thought was in the best interests of the city. Then the negotiations occurred. Would he rather these contracts were not settled?”
Villa said he replaced Beck with Brumley as city personnel director in July. Brumley, a Republican, served the city as its elected city controller during the 2000s and then on the Common Council as an elected alderwoman before taking becoming as business manager for the Greater Amsterdam School District, a job from which she retired in February. Other recent Villa appointments include City Clerk Stefanie Lenkowicz, hired in July to replace Laura Barquero, who quit citing family obligations; Dan Maxwell, who replaced retired city assessor Calvin Cline in August; and last month, former City Engineer Michael Clark, who served under Republican Mayor Joseph Emanuelle III, as a replacement for City Engineer Richard Miller, who quit in September.
All of Villa’s full-time appointments were approved unanimously by the Common Council, which is majority controlled by the Democrats, although 5th Ward Alderman and Deputy Mayor James Martuscello consistently votes with the Republicans,.
Villa said Brumley was hired using the mayor’s discretionary power to hire part-time office employees without council approval.
Cinquanti has criticized the hiring of Clark as a lame duck appointment, but has said the only Villa appointee he intends to not reappoint will be Corporation Counsel William Lorman.
Villa said Brumley was deeply involved in settling the fire contract, which is the last piece enabling Amsterdam to switch to a biweekly pay schedule with direct deposit capability, something the other unions have already agreed to but could not be implemented until all unions did. He said Beck was also instrumental in helping to create the new pay schedule.
“We had become a rarity, even among municipalities, to be paid every week,” he said. “This will save us on employee-hours of work doing payroll. There will be savings in check costs, and if you compound that over 200 employees, over years, that’s a significant savings, and it was a difficult task. When we came in everybody said there was no way we were going to get that, but the thing that people don’t understand is you’re not going to get give-backs unless you negotiate fairly.”
Fourth Ward Alderman Dave Dybas, a Democrat and frequent critic of city financial practices, said he was a no-vote on the fire contract until some of the long-term savings negotiated by Villa were explained to him during an executive session held prior to the contract vote.
“The truth of the matter is the contract represented, at least in my mind, significant savings immediately and other savings that could occur and will occur in future years,” Dybas said. “You put all of that together, and it puts us in a slightly better situation than we are right now.”
First Ward Alderman Patrick Russo, a Republican, was absent for the contract vote.
The new fire union contract includes two 1.25 percent salary raises for 2017 and 2018, but the raises are only added to the employees’ current salaries, not granted retroactively with resulting lump-sum catch-up payments. Another 2.5 percent raise is granted for 2019, giving all firefighters an effective 5 percent pay increase for the city’s 2019-20 budget.
The new contract includes 2.5 percent raises for 2020 and 2021.
The labor contract requires newly hired firefighters to contribute 15 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums, but has a complex formula for determining the premium contribution of existing employees, with a dollar amount capped since 2011 gradually increasing each year of the new contract until 2021.
“This puts the city on a good footing going forward. I’m not saying the city went above and beyond, but the health insurance plans they had, you can’t even get those plans anymore,” Villa said.
The Fire Department’s no-layoff clause was allowed to sunset with this contract. Villa said the firefighters union wanted to extend the provision.
“Well, who wouldn’t?” he said. “But you can’t really have those kind of clauses in today’s environment. I come from a police background and I would never support minimum staffing, because then you pigeon-hole yourself from making any changes.”
Some of the long-term changes included in the fire contract include a cap on the number of “compensation hours” for firefighters, often offered in lieu of overtime pay, at a maximum of 120 hours.
Villa said some city firefighters have effectively banked over 400 hours of compensation time, requiring the city to provide large buy-backs at the employee’s final hourly salary, often much more per hour then when the time was originally earned.
Villa said the existing banked comp time for some employees may result in buybacks of $50,000 to $70,000 whenever the employee retires. He said none of the firefighters who have comp time saved now will lose what they have, but going forward the contract will require the city to either pay them in overtime or pay back their comp time banks at the current rate of pay to keep them at no more than 120 hours.
“It’s unreasonable to expect a municipality to bankroll your retirement with comp time from five or six years ago being paid back at a much higher rate then when you earned it,” Villa said.
Villa said City Controller Matt Agresta has been given a budget of $78,000 to attempt to buy back some of the comp time above the 120-hour cap currently banked by some of the firefighters.
Cinquanti said he hopes the city will have the money necessary to pay for the raises guaranteed in the contract.