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Paul Feely's City Hall: Manchester's fire parade doused after union contract snubbed

By PAUL FEELY
September 22. 2018 8:40PM

The Manchester Fire Prevention Parade and Muster in 2012. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader file photo)

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The city firefighters union has informed fire officials members will "no longer perform duties" outside those identified in their job descriptions and collective bargaining agreement - and the city's annual Fire Prevention Week parade might only be the first casualty.

City firefighters had been scheduled to host the 64th annual parade - featuring "New England's largest lineup of firefighting and emergency apparatus" - on Sunday, Oct. 7. But Fire Chief Dan Goonan announced Thursday he was canceling this year's event, citing "unforeseen circumstances."

Truth is, anyone should have seen this coming after Mayor Joyce Craig cast a tie-breaking vote earlier this month to kill a proposed contract with the firefighters union, which endorsed her and campaigned on her behalf during her run for office in 2017.

The proposal included a 2 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA), merit and longevity steps retroactive to July 1, COLA increases equal to the city tax cap on July 1 in 2019 and 2020, and merit and longevity steps.

It was supported by aldermen Kevin Cavanaugh, Will Stewart, Chris Herbert, Dan O'Neil, Bill Shea, Bill Barry, and Normand Gamache. Opposing the deal were Tim Baines, Tony Sapienza, Elizabeth Moreau, Joe Kelly Levasseur, John Cataldo, Barbara Shaw, Keith Hirschmann and Craig.

In a letter to Chief Goonan dated Sept. 19, Jeff Duval, president of the Manchester Professional Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 856, wrote that members have been looking at their options in the days since that vote.

"Our membership has been without a contract for 446 days," wrote Duval. "You are also aware that our proposal to settle the contract drew a 7-7 tie from the aldermen, only to have the mayor break the tie and vote it down. This has caused much frustration for the members of Local 856."

Duval assured Goonan union members have the "utmost respect" for him.

"Our frustration is with a few aldermen and the mayor, but as you know our jobs are performed for the department," wrote Duval. "With that said, effective immediately the members of Local 856 will no longer fix and/or repair air pack harnesses, belts, batteries or any other parts of the air pack that needs repair, while on duty. The members will also no longer be responsible for ground ladder testing while on duty."

Duval added the union would have no objection if the department chooses to hire members to come in while off duty to make the repairs or test the ground ladders, "if they are paid time and a half, just as is currently done for hose repair and mask fit testing."

"Chief, it is unfortunate that the Local needs to take these steps, but we feel it is necessary in order for City Hall to take us seriously," concluded Duval.

In a letter sent to aldermen Thursday, Goonan tells board members he will subcontract out maintenance of breathing apparatus and other safety equipment normally maintained by firefighters, and that he had canceled the parade.

Goonan says he is concerned with an uptick in sick leave usage by union members and its impact on overtime. According to Goonan, fire officials are seeing an average of three additional members per shift using sick leave versus last year.

Goonan writes that his FY 2019 overtime budget is $1.3 million, and to date the department has spent $541,239, or 41 percent.

"Projections indicate that overtime expenses will be $200,000 over last fiscal year by the end of this month," writes Goonan. "If this trend continues we anticipate more than $2.5 million in year-end overtime costs, creating a potential $1.2 million deficit, which is impossible to absorb in my budget."

Goonan writes that while the increase in sick leave usage is "obvious," it is difficult to address through discipline due to the fact that "it is caused by many members, not just a few."

"It is imperative that I take action now to avoid a substantial budget deficit, or worse, layoffs before year-end," writes Goonan.

Effective today, Goonan writes, when shift vacancies occur, manpower will be made available by allowing pieces operating with four personnel to stay in service with 3 per shift at Stations 2, 5, 6, 10 and 11, and Truck 1.

Goonan believes these measures could potentially make six members available on each of the department's four shifts to reduce overtime.

"If this does not create enough savings, rolling station closures may be necessary," writes Goonan. "While these measures are certainly not ideal, have an impact on the safety of my members and affects the ability to deliver services at the level our citizens deserve, they are, in my opinion, the best strategy to address a disappointing and unfortunate situation."

When asked whether the contract situation directly led to the cancellation of this year's parade, Duval said Goonan was the best person to answer that question.

"With that said, there had been some talk amongst some members if we should participate or not," said Duval. "While no vote was taken on the matter, I believe the chief had the foresight to see that with the low morale due to the lack of a new deal, participation would probably not have been high."

- - - - -

Manchester Proud - the "citizens' coalition" committed to a vision for city schools where students, families and the community feel "supported, engaged, and proud to make Manchester their home" - has embarked on a monthlong canvassing effort and launched an online survey to hear from residents about the city and what they hope to see from city schools in the future.

The canvassing effort kicked off Sept. 15, with volunteers knocking on more than 500 doors in the Queen City.

"We had two goals with this canvass," said Barry Brensinger of Lavallee Brensinger Architects and a Manchester Proud coordinator. "We wanted to hear from the community their thoughts for the next district strategic plan, but even more importantly, we wanted to bring people together to talk and work on the issue that affects us all - our schools; and in both respects the day exceeded expectations."

According to Brensinger, City Year co-sponsored Saturday's canvass. City Year corps members, working alongside students, educators and other members of the community knocked on more than 500 doors, held over 150 conversations about Manchester's schools, and distributed more than 350 flyers telling residents how to fill out Manchester Proud's community survey and offering other ways to become more involved in the group's efforts to transform city schools.

Among the staff members participating was McLaughlin Middle School Principal Bill Krantz, who shared some of his impressions of the day with school board members in an email.

"I received a significant amount of positive feedback from the families that we spoke to," writes Krantz. "They were very appreciative and somewhat surprised that we were knocking on doors on a Saturday morning. Numerous folks shared that never in their lifetime have they seen principals out going door-to-door."

"We were particularly pleased by how engaged residents were with our canvassers - we were hoping to have a 20 percent conversation rate for the number of doors we visited and we ended up over 30 percent," noted Brensinger. "People are clearly excited by the idea of a community-driven movement focused on our schools and we saw tremendous buy-in on the importance of valuing all perspectives and going door-to-door to talk with residents in a truly inclusive fashion."

Manchester Proud will hold additional canvassing days this month and in October and invites and welcomes members of the community to join.

To see the schedule or sign up to canvass, go to www.manchesterproud.org/events/ or check out Manchester Proud on Facebook.

Manchester Proud will host a town hall-style event Tuesday, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the city library, 405 Pine St. RSVP to outreach@manchesterproud.org by Tuesday morning.

Paul Feely is the City Hall reporter for the Union Leader and Sunday News. Reach him at pfeely@unionleader.com.


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