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.