Christine Stuart photo
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin (Christine Stuart photo)

With his back to a sea of firefighters in navy blue tee-shirts, Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin told a legislative committee Monday that he needs them to help create on oversight panel that would control labor negotiations because there are no better alternatives to Hartford’s financial woes.

Echoing the “no tax increase” stance of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, his former boss, Bronin said he can’t raise Hartford’s mill rate, which is already 74 mills.

“To do so would kill the city of Hartford,” Bronin said.

Bronin said Hartford is facing a $48.5 million deficit in fiscal year 2017 and there are few places he can cut the city’s $263 million non-education budget.

Bronin told lawmakers on the legislature’s Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee he was asking for their help to create a nine-member panel to negotiate its labor contracts. The process would be different than the traditional arbitration process where the city or the union could appeal a contract to a three-member arbitration panel, which typically would have the final say.

This new temporary committee contemplated in the legislation would have the final say on labor contracts and would require the city to enter negotiations over retiree health and pension benefits, too. Whatever the committee decided would automatically go in effect unless it was voted down by five of the nine city council members.

Christine Stuart photo
Firefighters lined three floors of the Legislative Office Building in Hartford prior to the start of the hearing (Christine Stuart photo)

“The challenge we face is so big that we must begin to contemplate paths forward that would in other times be unthinkable,” Bronin said.

Lawmakers wanted to know if Bronin had called union leaders to the table to negotiate those contracts.

Bronin said he has spoken with union leadership about key issues, but doesn’t believe there would be a willingness by the unions to address them.

“I did not come away from those discussions with the impression that it was anymore than business as usual,” Bronin said.

Vincent Fusco, president of the Hartford Fire Fighters Association, told the committee that the mayor has not attempted to negotiate with employees in any “productive or meaningful manner.” Fusco said instead he has attempted to push through this legislation, which would give him more power.

Bronin contends he had to introduce the legislation now because the legislative session ends on May 4 and couldn’t wait until he had discussions with the unions.

The proposal, which was panned last week by most of Hartford’s legislative delegation and four members of the Hartford City Council, has some other interesting opponents, including State Treasurer Denise Nappier.

In her written testimony, Nappier said the legislation would allow the city of Hartford to contribute less than the actuarially required amount to its municipal retirement fund, as long as the funding ratio was not less than 65 percent.

Nappier, a Hartford resident, said that it conflicts with Hartford’s charter. She said the underfunding of pension plans is a “sensitive point, and deserves utmost caution.”

But taking away the power of elected officials and the power of the electorate who elects them doesn’t resolve the problem.

Christine Stuart photo
Vincent Fusco, president of the Hartford Fire Fighters Association, with Councilwoman Wildaliz Bermudez and Councilman Larry Deutsch (Christine Stuart photo)

Nappier said there have been times in the past where boards or commissions were created by the state to help struggling cities navigate difficult financial waters. However, Nappier said Bronin’s proposal is much different because it creates a board chaired by the mayor and an official from the state’s Office of Policy and Management, with four local officials and four appointed by the mayor. The state official would not be able to vote.

She said other than that there’s no state involvement like there was about 15 years ago when an oversight panel took over Waterbury’s finances.

Rick Hart, legislative and political director of the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association, said the situation in Waterbury was different than it is in Hartford. He said they had a $70 million budget deficit and a $431 million deficiency in their pension fund, which was funded at 4.4 percent.

Hart recalled that the state had to issue $75 million in deficit bonds and another $50 million in short-term bonds to bail the city out.

In 2009, Waterbury bonded $213 million to fund the pensions, Hart said. He said the city was 30 days from going under and 30 days from being unable to make payroll when the state intervened.

He said Hartford is not even close to that type of fiscal crisis and Bronin was only in office for 75 days before submitting this legislation.

“In 75 days he’s come to this legislative body, throwing his hands up, surrendering and asking the legislature to bail him out,” Hart said. “He hasn’t rolled his sleeves up. He hasn’t put in the time and work necessary to fix the problem. He’s come to the big brother to bail him out.”

Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, said it’s clear what this legislation is about.

“It’s all about pensions,” Verrengia, a retired police officer, said.

He said whether it’s about the pensions of the current employees or the retirees, that’s what this legislation is all about.

Retirees are not represented by a union any longer and unable to use collective bargaining to negotiate their pensions.

“It seems the mayor is pushing a panic button before he’s giving us an opportunity to work with his administration and to work with the city council to identify savings,” Larry Dorman, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 4, said.

Dorman’s union represents about 500 city employees and 230 school employees.

He said his members are concerned about an oversight board.

“We’ve seen what just happened in Flint, Michigan, where a corporate-style oversight board poisoned the water. We need a Hartford solution, not a Flint solution,” Dorman added.