By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Contract negotiations between the city and the local firefighters union will continue until at least the end of October as the two sides try to agree on several issues, including wages and health insurance benefits.
The Labor Relations Committee of the Havre City Council met with two representatives of Local 601 of the International Association of Firefighters Tuesday night.
The contract will affect 15 firefighters.
The city and the union had earlier reached agreement on two of the union's eight proposals and agreed on another two on Tuesday. They agreed to meet again on Oct. 28.
Both proposals involved making the contract effective for one year instead of two.
"The way budgets have been, it's not logical to put together more than a one-year contract," said City Council member Jack Brandon, the chair of the Labor Relations Committee.
The items that are still unresolved include: the union's proposal for a 4 percent across-the-board pay increase; an increase in skill pay for emergency medical technicians; a proposal that would add the city's health insurance contribution to the employees' base wage, boosting their eventual retirement pay; and a union request to clarify a contract article governing pay rates for employees who temporarily assume the responsibilities of a higher rank to fill in for an absent employee.
The city has made a counterproposal of a 2 percent raise for the firefighters, Brandon said Monday. Wages will be discussed at the next meeting.
One of the most complex issues is the future of health insurance for city employees. Until now, each union has bargained separately on the city's contribution to its employees' health insurance premiums. Brandon wants that to change this year.
"People getting paid different rates on their insurance is not a good deal," he said. "We need to somehow get everyone on the same contract."
Brandon said he has given union and non-union representatives drafts of a health insurance contract that would apply to all city employees. The contract proposes the city pay what it now pays nonunion and public works employees: $305 of the $351 total premium for a single employee, $471 of the $704 total premium for an employee with a child or spouse on the plan, and $622 of the $931 total premium for an employee with a family on the plan.
That would mean police officers would pay less than they pay now, firefighters would pay more, and public works and nonunion city employees would see no change, Brandon said today.
If there is no premium increase next year, the contract would remain in force unless one of the groups wanted to open it for negotiation.
Brandon said he wants representatives of the three unions and nonunion city employees to meet with four City Council members before winter to discuss the draft and try to come to an agreement.
The firefighters union representatives on Tuesday submitted a proposal for a 15-person bargaining committee on the insurance issue - including three representatives from each union - based on a similar committee formed in Billings.
"We've got a long way to go on this," said Mike Anderson, the chair of the union's negotiation committee. "It's a complex issue and this is just one proposal."
Labor Relations Committee members said they would like to see a smaller group discuss the health insurance contract.
Anderson said employees in other cities and counties in the state pay less than Havre employees do for health insurance.
"One thing I noticed is that in Billings, the state, Yellowstone County, all their rates are a lot lower than ours - their premiums," Anderson told the committee.
When firefighters were out of the room, some committee members said they didn't like two of the union's proposals this year, including the proposal to add the city's insurance contribution to the firefighters' base wage.
"I don't think much of that one," said committee member Allen "Woody" Woodwick.
Brandon agreed that it was "not a reasonable request."
The committee said there could be legal problems with adopting the proposal because employees with families would get more toward their retirement than single employees.
Committee members said they are also unlikely to approve the increase in skill pay.
"If we allow for it, we have to budget for it," said committee member Doug Larson.
Brandon said he thinks the city increased skill pay last year.
"I don't think we can agree to that one," he said.
Committee members said they support changing the contract so that employees who fill in for someone of higher rank can get paid a higher wage after as little as seven consecutive work days, instead of after 30 days as the contract now states.
Brandon said he thinks it is a reasonable request, but that he would like to see an estimate of the cost the city would assume before agreeing to accept it. He said he will send the contract item to city clerk Lowell Swenson to rewrite.
The firefighters also requested a new type of boots to replace the two different pairs now worn to fight wildland fires and fires in buildings.
"These boots could replace both and they'd be much more comfortable," said Joe Parenteau, a member of the union's negotiation committee.
Since the contract specifically covers boots, Brandon said the new boots - which cost about $270 - could be phased in as the old boots wear out.
Brandon said that since boots are more expensive than the ones the city now budgets for, the issue will be referred to the Finance Committee, which can approve the change and decide the timetable for replacing the boots. He said the cost will make replacing them this year difficult.