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Selectmen vote to rescind recognition of firefighters union

Move is a response to failed negotiations on healthcare insurance

August 10, 2010
WOLFEBORO — The Wolfeboro Board of Selectmen voted 5-0 on Aug. 4 to rescind recognition of the union representing members of the Wolfeboro Fire-Rescue Department. By rescinding recognition of the union, the board also repudiated the current contract between the union, Professional Firefighters of Wolfeboro, NH Local 3708, and the town.

The move was the town's final response to three years of failed negotiations over health insurance benefits.

The legal basis for rescinding recognition was that the RSA cited in Warrant Article 19 in 2002 authorizing the town to recognize the union, RSA31:3, had been superseded in 1975. The superseded RSA allowed a town to recognize a bargaining unit of as little as three members. The current law, RSA 273-A:8 states that "in no case shall the board certify a bargaining unit of fewer than 10 employees with the same community of interest without the prior approval of the governing body of the public employer," meaning Town Meeting. Since Article 19 did not cite the proper RSA, it was invalid. Current membership of Local 3708 is nine members (three lieutenants and six firefighters).

The real issue was the refusal of the union to accept terms for health insurance in line with all other town employees. In 2007 the town undertook a review of the total compensation of town employees, including benefits as well as wages and salaries. According to Selectman Chair Linda Murray, "the town needs to control increases in the cost of benefits and shift the emphasis on to salary and away from benefits." To accomplish this, the town reduced the number of health insurance plans offered from six to three, and offered to add the cost difference between an employee's current plan and a lower cost plan to the employee's salary, less their contribution to the plan. The town also offered an opt-out payment to employees who opted out of health insurance from the town (usually shifted to a spouse's plan). In all cases this meant a higher wage or salary but a lower benefit cost. The share of the insurance cost to employees also rose to seven percent.

Murray said the town saved $82,441 as a result of nonunion employees, ASCME employees and police accepting the town's proposal and switching plans. Firefighters did not accept the proposed changes in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

She said the town had a pay and classification study done by Thornton and Associates in 2008 that looked at total compensation (pay and benefits) for all town positions. The study led the town to make adjustments, including pay increases for some positions. Murray said that ASCME came prepared to negotiate the changes for the town office positions it represented, but the firefighters union was not prepared to make any concessions or change health insurance plans.

"Not recognizing the union is the only way to resolve this," Murray said. Town Manager Dave Owen said that the firefighters would be placed under the town's personnel plans as of the first pay period of October, and during the month of September there will be an open enrollment period for firefighters.

Selectman Sarah Silk said, "During difficult times, ASCME and nonunion employees have made concessions. I am very disappointed that we have not been able to move forward [with the firefighters] after three years."

Selectman Chuck Storm asked how Wolfeboro compared to other towns in health insurance. Owen said he has read about towns going to 18 percent and 25 percent employee contributions to health insurance vs. seven percent for Wolfeboro town employees.

"Firefighters pay no share, plus they get differential pay as well," he said.

Murray added that the current family plan costs the town $3,950 more for firefighters than for any other town employees.

Selectman Marge Webster moved to rescind recognition of the union, stop negotiating and bring the firefighters into line by October. The vote was 5-0 in favor.

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