Written by Melissa Argueta Friday, 21 January 2011 00:00
After nearly a month-long break, the Garden City Board of Trustees reconvened for their first meeting of 2011. After an opening moment of silence to remember victims of the shootings in Arizona, Mayor Robert J. Rothschild announced that the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) contract was unanimously approved and ratified by the board of trustees. The news met with a mixed reaction from citizens, who offered praise, criticism and suggestions.
The mayor stated that on Dec.16, 2010, the board entered into an executive session and, at that time, they reviewed the provisions of a Memorandum of Agreement between the Incorporated Village of Garden City and Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) regarding a contract period from June 1, 2010, through and including May 1, 2012.
“On a motion of Trustee Cavanaugh, the vote was unanimously approved and carried and the motion was approved and ratified. I was authorized to sign this final contract on behalf of the village,” the mayor stated.
Village Counsel Gerard Fishberg clarified that the contract was secured for three years, with an increase of 1.5 percent in each year. “There were no other changes in the contract except for a change in the way the village is permitted to record employees’ time. We expanded the language, which allowed some more sophisticated time clocks to be employed using swipe cards,” Fishberg stated.
According to Fishberg, the contract negotiations were lengthy and went on for about seven or eight sessions. “For those who don’t quite understand the process, for the CSEA, unlike the uniformed departments, there is a negotiation and if negotiations fail, a mediator is brought in. If the mediation fails, there’s fact-finding and then after fact-finding, if there’s still no agreement that can be had, the municipality can impose a contract,” Fishberg said.
Fishberg offered a full explanation of what actually happens during CSEA contract negotiations. When arriving at a settlement, he maintained that one important consideration is what other public sector employers are paying for various job titles within the village. “We try to look at comparable salaries. Frankly, what we find when we do that is that Garden City pays wages that are pretty much in the middle of the pack. We are certainly not the top payer; we’re pretty much in the middle of the pack and maybe a little below the middle. We look at other salary increases that have been negotiated in similar contracts,” he said.
In a study of other contracts of comparable municipalities settled within the last year for this time frame such as Lynbrook, Floral Park and Valley Stream among others, Fishberg believes that Garden City’s settlement (at 1.5 percent per year) is by far “the lowest settlements of all the ones that have been achieved in the last year or so.” He stated further that he, and Village Administrator Robert Schoelle led the negotiations and recommended that the contract be approved by the village. “This one and a half percent a year is a very favorable number and certainly a fair number for the employees and a very fair number for the village,” Fishberg said.
Trustee Andrew Cavanaugh noted that the contract should be viewed in light of the current economic conditions of the broader economy. “Much has been made recently in some Letters of the Editor, that the cost of living increase from 2000 to the current [year] is 28 percent and yet we have increased the CSEA numbers by 38 percent,” he said. He went on to inform the audience that there has only been a 3.6 percent real wage growth over the past decade for village employees.
“I hear a lot of commentary, and very well-meant commentary about why are our municipal employees doing so well when we [residents] are struggling. I don’t know the economics of everyone in the village, but I wonder how many village residents or village households have achieved better than 3.6 percent point-to point economic gain in the last decade. Look around the room ladies and gentlemen, and I would submit to you that nearly everyone has,” he said, adding, “Maybe not people on fixed incomes, maybe not the people on Social Security only. But this is a community where people go out and work hard and prosper for the most part. That’s what brings them here. They probably have done better than 3.6 percent over the last decade,” he said.
Cavanaugh went on to say the contract was fair and appropriate for the economic times. “I would say that this contract was ably negotiated and is a very good and beneficial result both for the village and for its employees.”
Resident Ronald Tadross asked what the actual yearly salary increase would amount to, including pensions and healthcare benefits. Village Auditor Jim Olivo said pension increases that took effect this year were around 28 percent and health care increases were 14.5 percent. He said he did not calculate the salary increase with those costs. Tadross asked, “So you guys agreed to a three-year contract on behalf of the residents without even knowing these numbers?”
Cavanaugh responded that the village does not have control over the state mandate costs because the membership in the pension and health care scheme is automatic. “The governor said he may be able to do something about it, we fully support him in that endeavor…With respect to medical, we do subscribe voluntarily, if you will, to the state fund, the Empire Fund, after inquiry, appears to be a very, very advantageous purchase for the coverage is offered,” Cavanuagh said.
The reason it is advantageous is that the cost is socialized around the state and not focused on the New York Metropolitan area, where medical inflation is highest. “Is it increasing? Absolutely. Is it onerous? Absolutely. But the genesis of that problem is not our negotiations, it is not this group of trustees, it’s not the employee group,” he added.
Cavanaugh further stated there is nothing the board can do about the mandates. “What we can do is to seek to come to a fair resolution of our financial tolerance and the aspirations and expectations of our employees who do, in fact, support the village and do in fact support the environment that we all live in. And again I will submit... that 1.5 percent with respect to that aspect of the contract is a very fair settlement,” he said.
Tadross, who told the board he has experience negotiating with unions, offered a suggestion to the board. “If you aren’t getting what you want, if you think that something is not good, then don’t agree to it for three years. Do a one-year contract. Nothing in this contract seems good to me, so why would I agree to three years of it? Especially when I don’t know what the pension/health care is going to be. Now as far as I understand it, for the next two years, the state told us pensions are going to be up 40 percent and healthcare is tracking up over 10 [percent]. So if you put those numbers in this contract, this contract is going to cost us at least 8 percent more year after year for two of the next three years,” Tadross said.
The CSEA represents more than half of village employees and Mayor Rothschild responded that the board thought this was a reasonable contract salary wise. “Many boards of trustees who sat here agreed to 7 percent increases in some of these salaries... Now health benefits maybe in 1983, ’84, weren’t as prominent as they are today, but those raises were given,” the mayor said.
Fishberg also pointed out that the 1.5 percent salary increase will mean that the average village employee/CSEA worker is going to get an increase amounting to $750 a year. “How far into their pocket do you want to go to take back health insurance costs when they are going to get $750 increase this year? Do you propose they perhaps pay $2,000 or $3,000 in health care costs so that they have a net loss of $3,000 or $4,000? $750 — that’s what 1.5 percent produces to the average employee,” Fishberg said. Tadross interjected that residents have higher health care costs and do not have salary increases of 7 percent and someone has to pay for these increases. “It’s a zero sum gain,” he said.
In addition Fishberg said pensions are guaranteed by the State of New York. “There is nothing, nothing that we can do in terms of negotiating a contribution or any reduction in pensions to the employees, that’s within the sole province of the State of New York,” he said.
Former village trustee and resident Thomas Lamberti, who recently wrote a letter to the editor printed in Garden City Life, expressed his suggestions for the CSEA contract. He asked the board to provide an analysis of the year-by-year labor costs of the contract, including wages, pension, health and roll up cost. “We don’t need it in bits and pieces. We need it in totality….Hopefully you will do that so we can make a fair judgment as to what the cost impact to the village is,” Lamberti said.
Resident Leo Stimmler commented that he thought it was an excellent contract. “I want to commend everyone who worked on it, but I disagree with the village attorney…when he says there’s nothing that the village can do about pension costs,” he said. He noted that at the Nov. 18 board of trustees meeting, the village auditor reported that one of the departments was 83 percent over their overtime budget. “One of the big, big ways to control pension costs is to control overtime,” he said.