hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

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March 7, 2012

Editorial: Firefighters' raises send a terrible message

A state arbitration panel's award of six years of pay raises to Haverhill firefighters sends a terrible message to taxpayers.

It says, in essence, don't bother insisting that elected leaders only agree to contracts that their cities and towns can afford. Public employees are entitled to raises — whether municipalities have the money to pay for them or not.

Haverhill firefighters have been working without a contract or pay raise since 2004. Negotiations reached an impasse, according to Mayor James Fiorentini, when the firefighters would not accept a contract similar to those reached with other municipal unions.

The arbitrators of the dispute, the three-person Massachusetts Joint Labor-Management Committee, just awarded a bonanza to the firefighters. The decision, which covers 2006 through the current fiscal year, grants firefighters raises totaling 10.5 percent, or 1.75 percent per year. The total cost of the award is estimated at $2.5 million.

The city is appealing the ruling based on evidence that two of the three arbitrators disagreed with the wage portion of the decision. The arbitration panel has reopened the matter to correct what it considers a "clerical" matter.

An appeal means the amount of the award may be changed but the principle remains the same: Raises, in the arbitrators' view, are an entitlement, not something that must be earned.

It is arguable that the scandal-plagued firefighters deserved no raises at all during the period.

Fiorentini is obligated by law to submit to the City Council a proposal to pay the raises as ordered. But the council is under no obligation to approve the spending. Failing to fund the raises would force the matter back to the negotiating table.

It is preposterous to insist that taxpayers — many of whom have had no raises in their own jobs and are struggling to make ends meet — are obligated to provide raises to public employees, regardless of their performance, merit or the city's ability to pay.

The City Council should refuse to fund this award.

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