BOS gets union contract costs wrong at STM

Fri, 2015-11-13


The Board of Selectmen (BOS) gave erroneous information to the Special Town Meeting of November 10, 2015, understating the cost of two union contracts by over $200,000 over the next three years, based on an analysis by Acton Forum.

BOS Vice-Chair Peter Berry made the presentation on Articles Four and Five, which were two union contracts that required Town Meeting approval according to state law. Once Town Meeting funded the first year of the contract, the next two years would also be approved and could not be changed or rescinded by future Town Meeting votes.

Berry's slide presented at Town Meeting showed that the first-year cost under Article Four, which was for the Superior (police) Officers union, would cost the town $18,820 in the current fiscal year, and over three years the "incremental cost" would be $57,393. During his presentation, he also said the total for the three years of this contract are $57,394.

When we asked Berry to define "incremental cost," he emailed us that the incremental costs are the total of all cost increases over the three-year term of the contracts. (To read Berry's email to us, click here:

But in a math example showing how one would calculate the cost, Berry's example showed that the three-year cost would be more than twice as high as what he presented at Town Meeting. This would mean that the three-year cost for the Superior Officer's contract would be around $120,000, not $58,000 as Berry had said and shown during the meeting.

The AFSCME contract, which represented 27 workers in the municipal properties, highway, and cemetery departments, had an even larger budget impact. This contract was presented as Article Five. Berry said the first-year cost would be $47,777 and the three-year total cost would be $150,951. But if one does a similar calculation as Berry did, the actual three-year cost would be more than double that figure.

This brings the three-year cost of salary increases for these 35 employees in the two unions to about $420,000, or more than double what Berry presented at the Special Town Meeting. The town employs over 225 workers who make over $10,000 per year, according to the payroll records given to Acton Forum in the spring of 2015 (see These two unions represent about 15% of the municipal workforce.

Union contracts that are negotiated and approved are often used as guides for other unions negotiating with the town. This is one reason that approvals should be scrutinized because they not only last for three years but can affect all other employee union costs.

None of the information Berry presented was published in the Special Town Meeting warrant, nor was a handout provided to Town Meeting attendees before the meeting, according to Berry. This meant that Town Meeting voters were seeing and hearing the figures for the first time during Berry's presentation.

After Berry's presentation, Acton's Finance Committee said they recommended Article Four. No Town Meeting members asked any questions, nor was there any debate, and the article passed unanimously, according to the announcement by Moderator Don MacKenzie.

Article Five also passed unanimously, this time with no comment on the recommendation by the Finance Committee. Again, there was no audience comments, questions or debate.

The calculation error was not flagged by the Finance Committee, even though their role is to look at long-term spending by the town and they recommended the warrant article.

NEXT UP: FinCom drops the ball on its oversight responsibilities.


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Berry corrects mistaken explanation of incremental cost

I received this email from BOS Vice-Chair Peter Berry tonight, November 13, 2015:

Allen: I need to correct my mistaken explanation of the term "incremental cost increases."

Those cost increases are "incremental", as opposed to aggregate, because they reflect the increases needed to fund the cost increases for each year of the contract over the preceding fiscal year, not the aggregate of all expenditures required over the 3 year terms of the contracts.

So, in the example the "incremental cost increases" are $1,000 in the first year ("2% x $50,000 = $51,000); + $1,275 (difference between the first year salary of $51,000 and the second year 2.5% increase to $52,275); + $1,307 (difference between the 2nd year salary of $52,275 and the third year 2.5% increase to $53,582). The sum of those figures = $3,582, not the $6,582.

The "incremental cost increase" figures for the police superior officers unit, including increased shift differentials, are:
FY '16 = $18,8280
FY '17 = $18,349
FY '18 = $20,224
TOTAL = $57,393

The figures for the AFSCME unit, including step raises, are:
FY '16 = $47,777
FY '17 = $50,539
FY '18 = $52,635
TOTAL = $150,951

This is consistent with the way increases are calculated for all Town budgets, by calculating costs and percentages over the prior year's budgets, rather than aggregating cost increases over a number of years. It is also consistent with the governing statute: ''Incremental cost items'', the provisions of a collective bargaining agreement that require, in respect of any fiscal year, an appropriation by a legislative body that is greater than the appropriation so required in the preceding fiscal year . . ." M.G.L. C. 150E, sec. 1.

I explained at Town Meeting that, if the TM members approved the first year increases, the Town was required to fund the increases for years two and three. I explained the "incremental cost increases" as the "Total for the three years of this contract."

Thank you.

Peter J. Berry

Allen Nitschelm has lived in Acton since 1998 and writes about fiscal issues at the
local and state level. He is a former member of the town's Finance Committee
and is an Associate Publisher of Acton Forum.