Mayor says union benefits are “out of whack”
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
WENATCHEE — Mayor Frank Kuntz says he would like to rein in union medical benefits and pay increases that he called “out of whack” with private sector benefits.
Negotiating new employee contracts will be a top priority this year for the city, Kuntz told The Wenatchee World editorial board on Monday.
He said his goals are to have all employees on the same medical insurance plan, the same sick leave and vacation plan, and to make pay increases tied to the local economy rather than to other cities.
At the city’s annual retreat two weeks ago, Kuntz said standardizing the benefits for all city employees “is the right thing to do. I don’t care if you carry a gun or a shovel or an iPad, you should have the same benefits.”
The contracts for all three of the city’s unions expire at the end of the year.
Police union officials said this morning that the mayor is taking an idealistic approach to the union contracts that is sharply different than the way they have operated in the past. Police and fire departments across the state develop contracts based on other cities, not other departments within a city or solely on the local economy.
“He’s looking at the city as a for-profit business,” said Detective Edgar Reinfeld, vice president of the Wenatchee Police Guild. “But it’s complicated by the fact that the private sector doesn’t compare to the industry standard for public safety and government.”
The Guild represents about 36 employees, the Wenatchee Firefighters Local 453 represents about 25 employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSME) represents about 65 employees.
Representatives from the city’s other unions either did not return phone calls or could not be reached for comment.
Kuntz said the negotiated cost of living increases over the last 10 years have amounted to a 40-percent pay increase for police officers, nearly 35 percent increase for firefighters and about 30-percent increase for public works employees.
By comparison, non represented employees have received a compounded 24 percent pay increase during the same time.
As a result, some union employees are making more money than their non-union department heads, Kuntz said.
“When I look at it I see a systemic issue that needs to be dealt with,” he said.
He also said that pay is increasing even though city revenues have decreased for the last three years. If that continues, the city will have to keep laying off employees to balance the budget. Last year, the city laid off a police officer and four museum employees and four police officers and firefighters took early retirement because of revenue shortfalls.
“We’ve got to fix our spending problem,” Kuntz said.
He said that five or six years ago the city had 55 police employees whose salary and benefits made up about 26 percent of the city’s general fund budget. Today there are 45 police employees who make up more than 30 percent of the general fund budget, he said.
Reinfeld said police wage increases are tied to an economic index from the Seattle, Tacoma, Bremerton areas, which serve as guideline statewide. He said Wenatchee city officials and the Guild agreed to use that indicator eight years ago.
Kuntz said he also wants to fix the disparity between benefits for employees. For example, police officers pay $135 a month for their medical insurance, while some employees and managers pay $376 a month. And firefighters who have been on the job at least 26 years get six more days of vacation a year than police officers or public works employees with the same longevity.
Historically, the city has not calculated employee benefits based on what other departments or unions within the city are doing, said Wenatchee Police Sgt. John Kruse, negotiator for the Guild.
Basing benefits on what other police departments are doing “is making an apples to apples comparison. What the mayor is proposing to do is bring oranges to dump into the apple cart. ... That’s completely different from the norm for negotiations.”
The City Council decided earlier this year to hire attorney Stan Bastian to oversee the union negotiations, rather than having city officials do it this time around.
Michelle McNiel: 664-7152
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