Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary and CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong (Christine Stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — Leadership of the state’s largest municipal lobby told a task force Tuesday that pensions and health care benefits should not be part of collective bargaining for municipal employees.

The 14-member task force of mostly business executives has been asked to make recommendations to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state lawmakers about what types of structural changes are needed to turn Connecticut’s economy around.

Robert Patricelli, who co-chairs the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, said they are considering recommending the elimination of collective bargaining for health and pension benefits.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, who is also president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said Connecticut is one of the few states left that collectively bargain with labor unions over health and pension benefits.

Currently, if they’re unable to agree with a labor union on salaries or benefits they can take their appeal to a binding arbitration panel. The panel generally never agrees fully with one side or the other.

“It’s very, very difficult to get an arbitration panel to recognize that the health benefits is one of the most crippling aspects of any municipal budget,” O’Leary said.

In the past six years, O’Leary said the cost of Waterbury’s health benefits went from $53 million to $104 million.

“That’s an area of grave concern to us,” O’Leary said. “At the end of the day other states do not have to participate in collective bargaining for their health care issues. We’re suggesting it’s very difficult in the state of Connecticut under the current labor agreements and under binding arbitration.”

He said binding arbitration panels don’t understand the impact of health care costs on municipal budgets.

At the same time, O’Leary acknowledged how difficult it would be to change the current collective bargaining structure.

He said he doesn’t think any municipal leader could accomplish what the oversight board did for Waterbury between 2001 and 2006.

“Without oversight I think it would be foolish,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary said he thinks everything would wind up in binding arbitration and it wouldn’t be nearly as successful as the current collective bargaining process.

Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said they’ve examined areas where Connecticut is an outlier and collective bargaining is one of those areas.

“The legislature really needs to study the impact of what being an outlier has been on the state,” DeLong said.

But the leader of one of the largest municipal unions in the state isn’t buying the argument.

“It’s a shame to see CCM pandering to corporate aristocrats with the nerve to preach austerity to police officers, snow plow drivers, school paraprofessionals, and thousands of other public employees who are a vital part of Connecticut’s economy,” AFSCME Council 4 Executive Director Sal Luciano said. “Contrary to CCM’s posturing, the ability to bargain for decent health care and a secure retirement has benefited Connecticut by reducing employee turnover, improving the quality of public services and generating the kind of purchasing power that benefits our local communities.”

He said the answer to fiscal instability and growing economic inequality is not driving down wages and benefits for middle class workers.

“This is not systemic reform. It’s trying to fool people into the belief that taking money out of the hands of working people will somehow spur economic growth when, in fact, the opposite will happen,” Luciano said.