Parks Employees Going Back to Work

Legislative Council Monday approved agreement with union that brings the laid-off workers back.

Four former Parks and Recreation Department employees, along with a department secretary, will once again be working for the town after the Legislative Council approved an agreement Monday with the United Public Service Employee Union Local 424.

The employees were laid off last year after the council approved the privatization of the Lou Astorino Rink. Bringing in a private company to run the rink meant the employees lost their jobs as the town looked for ways to save money.

But the union appealed that decision and the state Labor Board found earlier this year that the town acted improperly in laying off the workers, ordering them to be reinstated with back pay.

Public Works Director Craig Cesare, who resigned his seat on the council earlier this year to take that job, said the additional help is more than welcome. The four employees, whose titles are Maintainer, are desperately needed for work that has gone undone because of manpower issues, he said. 

"There's tree work that needs to be done, work on the [Farmington] Canal line, in the parks, renovations projects -- we absolutely need them," he said.

As a member of the council, he was unaware how much responsibility the Parks and Public Works employees had, Cesare said.

"It was eye-opening for me," he said. "I had no idea of the responsibilities for this department."

As a council member he was often on the receiving end of constituent's complaints about things like overgrown brush on the canal trail, Cesare said. As Public Works director, he is focusing on those types of items to take care of using the new additional help, he said.

"A big part of our plans is to clear the brush on the 10 miles of canal line," he said. The workers also will be performing maintenance on town park buildings, including the installation of a new roof on a Bassett Park building, work done in-house to save money, he said.

Councilwoman Betty Wetmore said she would have preferred for the town to take over management of the rink rather than use the employees elsewhere.

"I don't think it's in the best interest of the town" to farm out the rink management, she said. The company running the rink manages to make a profit, she said, and so could the town.

The town realizes $100,000 profit from the lease, she said, but the Board of Education pays almost that much renting ice time for the Hamden High School hockey teams and other activities. Plus the town pays for police security details during games held there, she said.

"If this person who is running it makes a profit, why can't the town?" she asked.

But the town ran the rink for decades without ever turning a profit, Chief Administrative Officer Curt Balzano Leng said. And it would cost the town $200,000 to break its contract with the company, he said.

"The town never turned a profit running it -- it was a $300,000 annual loss for the town," Leng said, "and in one year we were able to turn it into a $100,000 revenue -- a $400,000 swing to the positive. 

"This union agreement, while costing the town money, brings the best of both worlds because we continue to get revenue from the rink lease and have the added bonus of putting four maintainers into the Parks division and a secretary to implement a work order system, making our parks cleaner and safer," Leng said. "All of this is done at a total cost of approximately $280 for an average year -- still a new $120,000 positive for the town. This is what you call win-win."

But in the last year, there's been a noticeable difference in the conditions at the rink, Wetmore said. 

"The ice is bad, it's freezing cold and dirty," she said. "It's not something the town can be proud of.

"I think it's a big mistake to continue with the privatization," she said.

She also questioned if there is enough work during the winter for the Parks and Recreation employees.

"It's great in the spring, summer and fall," she said, "but what do they do on the winter days when it doesn't snow?"

There's plenty of work to be done in the winter, said both Cesare and Councilman Jack Kennelly, who was acting Public Works Director until Cesare's hiring.

"There's an awful lot of work there for the men to do," Kennelly said. "I could go on and on with a list of things they do in the winter -- they are all hard-working people."

But it was only a little more than a year ago that the council -- including Kennelly and Cesare -- supported the privatization and layoffs, Wetmore noted.

"I just don't get it," she said.

Tom Jones August 24, 2011 at 02:52 PM
Would the rink make more more money for the taxpayers if it was simply sold outright, run privately and back on the tax rolls? The Town of Hamden has difficulty doing a multitude of things which include maintaining its buildings properly and managing the liabilities of its pension fund and health care costs. Any measures taken to limit these liabilities generally seem to be the right long term moves for the town and the taxpayer. I'm skeptical that the town could run the rink for a true profit. Fundamentally, the overall question, is should any government be in the business of operating any entity for a "profit"?
John P. Flanagan August 24, 2011 at 05:02 PM
In answer to the first question, No! That was investigated back in the 90's while we were doing the investigation of moving the High School, expanding on site, and/or building a second High School. That's because, sold to a private entity, it wouldn't be guaranteed to remain a rink. The same question can be asked and answered similarly for any park or facility owned by the Town. The decision was made back in 1969 to stop paying rental for ice time, travel expenses, higher travel insurance premiums, etc. and build the rink. Doesn't matter whether or not your skeptical or not. The fact remains that if the hourly rate had gone to the then prevailing rate of $210 to $225 per hour in 2001 rather than edging it slowly to $105 per hour where it was in 2010/2011 and for the past several years, it would have been running at a profit and financing other programs rather than ratcheting up property taxes every year. The answer to that "overall", but not puzzling question, is sure government is allowed to make a profit. A program that runs at a profit offsets costs for other essentials that don't. And, that's while keeping the taxes down. Government fills the gaps that the private sector can't, or won't, provide. That decision on governmental philosophy was made about a century and one half ago and has been going on since. Don't like it? Run for office; get enough support and change it.
Tom Jones August 24, 2011 at 05:48 PM
Much has changed since the 90's. The economy is not growing. Connecticut's population continues to decline. The cost of health care has far out paced the rate of inflation. The stock market has lost money over the last decade meaning our pension has lost money. Assumptions made 20 years ago no longer are valid. The town is faced with difficult decisions about what services it can and should provide. A town park likely provides greater benefits to more residents at a lower cost than a skating rink does. (Emotional arguments about Hamden being a Hockey town can start.) Concerning the question of whether government should be in the business of running entities for profit, the question was not Can the government do this - the question is SHOULD. I'd be curious to know when the town evaluates the cost to run a program or a facility such as the rink, do they include the present day costs of future pension obligations AND health care obligations for the lifetime of an employee to the cost of doing business as well as operating costs of Utilities, insurance, etc and lost revenue due lost property taxes? Still skeptical - the golf course lost money too, and the town should have been able to make a "profit" but could not.
John P. Flanagan August 24, 2011 at 09:35 PM
Nice try Tom. And the entire defense of the United States runs at a loss as does the Police Department and the Fire Department in Hamden. That is, unless, one accepts that government supplies services that must be paid for. If you don't, then your points and discussion are moot. However, I'm not going to trot into a debate that's been, in the United States, settled since State and Local governments decided in the era between late 1780's and about 1840's that there are programs which should be funded publicly such as roads, canals, education, elderly services, etc. And, that the monies to pay for the services will be raised in a manner that the government determines --- tolls, taxes, charge for services at the point if use or many and varied others. The "should" has been determined. There no longer is room for the ephemeral wishing to return to before the American revolution and the US Constitution. How, and on what, is the current argument. Should was determined long ago despite the attempts of a minority of the current trendies --- the tea party --- to attempt to make it appear otherwise. The majority of their ranks' arguments are, actually, centered on what to spend on and not "should" it be funded and spent. Rather their general point has been whether or not they like what's being paid for and not should things be paid for especially if they happen to like it.
Tom Jones August 25, 2011 at 03:33 PM
Please don't make this into a Tea Party Discussion Mr. Flanagan. I actually do believe that government is better suited to provide some services than the private sector. But I also believe that government is not suited to be in the business of making profits. Bottom line, I do believe the administration was attempting to act in the best interests of the resident and tax payer by privatizing the operation of the ice rink. Hamden needs to find more cost effective ways to run the town. This administration has refreshingly been up front in stating the costs such as health care costs and supporting the penison are "unsustainable". The biggest mistake this administration made was interpreting the contract with the unions, but perhaps that mistake was written years ago by old administrations and old council members with negotiations with the unions. Or perhaps we should really be upset with the state judicial system which ruled in favor of the unions effectively tying the hands of local government to run their towns more responsibly.


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