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Arbitrator sides with West Hartford in police union contract dispute

An independent arbitrator sided with the town of West Hartford last month in a dispute between the town and the police union over whether overtime pay can be included in pension calculations for officers who retire with 25 to 30 years of service.

The decision, issued on August 29, held that pensions for officers hired under the 2006 union contract would be calculated using “average base pay,” which excludes overtime compensation.

Union members argued that pensions should be calculated based on average final compensation which would include overtime and “other compensation” such as traffic work.

Although the contract was signed in 2006, the union did not dispute the provision until 2015. According to the arbitrator’s award the “dispute arose in 2015 when some Union members had concerns about the Town’s interpretation of the pension provisions of their collective bargaining agreement that went into effect on August 1, 2006.”

The delay in filing a grievance hurt the union’s prospects. The arbitrator noted the union did not object when the average base pay provision was printed in the town’s 2007 “Guide to Union Benefits” and only filed the grievance  “after it remained in the Guide for nine years.”

Although the officers affected by the disputed agreement are subject to an 85 percent cap on their pensions, the difference between average base pay and average final compensation could be significant.

The average patrol officer salary in West Hartford is $56,137, according to salary.com, an online database of employee compensation. But officers can make a lot more money through overtime and traffic work for construction projects.

West Hartford’s police department made headlines in 2015 when it was found that Officer Lt. Roger Brancoforte had earned $285,621.85 in a single year through overtime and private duty jobs. This was more than double his base pay of $122,205.64.

The change in the 2006 contract was part of West Hartford’s plan to deal with its underfunded pension program. The pension plan dropped from being 120 percent funded in 2003 to being only 43.3 percent funded in 2014, according to the town’s 2015-2016 budget report.

The sudden and steep decline in the pension fund was the result of lowered contributions by the town and low rates of return from the pension fund’s investments. The pension fund bottomed out during the recession in 2008 and 2009. The town has been taking steps to increase contributions, cut back on expenditures and revise its expectations for investment returns.

Although the contract in dispute expired in 2013, Rick Ledwith, Executive Director of Human Resources for the town, said there has yet to be a new labor contract. “We’ve been waiting for this to be settled back down before we negotiated the next contract, so we will start that process now.”

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