By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The union representing Havre police officers has filed a grievance against the city, saying higher health insurance costs have been passed on to police officers before a new premium has been negotiated as specified in their contract.
Dick LeTang of the Montana Public Employees Association, which represents Havre police, said that when officers received their paychecks at the end of August, the higher cost of insurance had been deducted for July and August. LeTang said the extra cost was "a big shocker" for the officers.
"It's significant," he said.
Havre police Sgt. Bill Wilkinson, who represents the local bargaining unit, said Monday the city should have negotiated with the union before passing the rate increase on to union members.
"They went ahead and passed on the increase to the police officers without negotiating," Wilkinson said.
The grievance, signed by 17 Havre police officers, was filed on Friday.
On Aug. 5 the Finance Committee of the Havre City Council approved a 45 percent health insurance rate increase, citing skyrocketing insurance costs since Sept. 11, 2001. The committee decided that half of the increase should be passed on to city employees and that the city would absorb the rest.
That's the first time the city has decided not to pick up the entire premium for single employees' health insurance.
Under the new arrangment, a single employee pays $46 a month. An employee with a second person on his or her plan has seen the rate increase about $80, while families have seen them go up by about $94.
The Finance Committee said the rates would only affect non-union workers because the police, fire and public works unions would have to negotiate for the cost of their insurance.
The City Council approved those rates on Aug. 18.
Havre city clerk Lowell Swenson said today that the officers did pay higher premiums at the end of August, but that the officers only had to pay the higher rates back to the middle of August, not the beginning of July.
LeTang said the union thinks the city should have negotiated with it first before raising rates.
"We understand that the price of health insurance is going up, but we feel they should have met with us and negotiated what the contribution rates were going to be prior to the implementing of the insurance (rates)," LeTang said.
Swenson said the city was only following its contract with the unions when it passed the increase on to the police officers.
"Because it says in their contract that the premiums were one year only," Swenson said. "It's the second year, so they're paying the increase."
The contract states, "The city will pay any excess premium cost for the first year of the contract only."
LeTang said the intent of the parties involved was that the second year's rates would be negotiated.
"It's easy for them to say we're following the contract, the half they want to read," LeTang said.
He pointed out the next section of the contract, which specifies: "For the second year, Medical Insurance shall be open for negotiation."
LeTang said the negotiating teams' intent was that the negotiation would happen before any rate increase.
He said he wrote Havre Mayor Bob Rice a letter in May or June requesting negotiations begin for next year's rate, and that he never got a response.
Rice said the letter was sent to City Council member Jack Brandon, not him.
"I respond to every letter I get," he said.
The grievance also says the city has violated part of its contract with the union that calls for the formation of an insurance committee made up of representatives of the three unions and nonunion employees to meet regularly with the city's insurance administrator. The committee is to discuss options for controlling costs like changing the deductibles and co-payments by city employees.
"I anticipate we can come to an agreement on that fairly readily," LeTang said. "It will be the money issues that will be hard."
He said that before the grievance was filed, Jack Brandon, who chairs the City Council's Labor Relations Committee, sent him a letter with a list of dates in September when the two parties could meet to negotiate new health insurance rates for the second year of the police officers' contract.
If the parties can reach an acceptable agreement about insurance rates for the police officers, he said, it might resolve the grievance. He would not say how much of a city contribution would be acceptable to the union.
Brandon could not be reached for comment this morning.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said he has received the grievance, but has not yet read it closely.
"What happens is, I'll take a look at the grievance and decide what I'm going to do with it," Rice said. He said City Attorney Jim Kaze has seen the grievance and will advise Rice on the matter.
Rice said that if he decides the union does have cause for a grievance, he can take it to the City Council for a decision.
"It will have to be rectified pretty soon here, I'm sure," Rice said, adding that would be within the next two weeks.
LeTang said if neither party is satisfied, the matter may eventually go to binding arbitration.