By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Unable to find middle ground on a new contract, the Hill County Commission and a union representing sheriff's office employees have turned to mediation to resolve a number of issues.
Longevity and shift differential pay and cell phone use are at the center of the dispute, said Tom Bivens, a Montana Public Employees Association negotiator. A mediator from the state Board of Personnel Appeals will be assigned to help the two parties reach a resolution, he said.
The MPEA represents 21 deputies, corrections officers and dispatchers at the Hill County Sheriff's Office, Bivens said. With the exception of the administrative staff, all of the department's employees are union members.
Their previous one-year contract expired in June.
When a new agreement is reached, the terms may or may not be retroactive to the expiration of the previous contract, County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said.
County Attorney and county personnel officer Cyndee Peterson said some issues will likely be retroactive, and others will not.
"The contract will definitely go back as to certain clauses, like greivances, vacation time and other matters that we didn't reopen for negotiation," she said. "Those that we are still negotiating may not. Whether they are retroactive has not been determined."
Bivens and Peterson have sent a joint letter asking for the assistance of a mediator from the state Department of Labor, Bivens said. No date for mediaion has been set.
Peterson said she hopes an agreement can be reached in a month or so.
"Mediation is the next step. Statutes call for mediation if a standstill is reached," she said, adding that mediation will likely start in a matter of weeks.
Although both sides have said a two-year contract is preferrable, Peterson said another one-year contract is likely.
According to Bivens, the county initially presented a two-year proposal, then withdrew the offer.
"The first day we went to the table, the offer was put out for a two-year contract with a good health insurance proposal" for the first year, Bivens said "The union was pretty excited about it, and then the offer was withdrawn."
The withdrawl set the tone for the rest of the negotiations, Bivens said.
"Things didn't get off to a great start," he said. "I was surprised they withdrew the offer. That's not normally in the spirit of negotiations. I don't think it was done maliciously but it causes problems."
Peterson disputed Bivens' account of the incident.
"What we had wanted to do is include a "me too" clause for the second year, meaning that whatever applied to all county employees would also apply to the sheriff's office," Peterson said. "We could not agree to pay for 100 percent of the health insurance premiums for the second year. There's no guarantee that the county could afford that in the second year. The union effectively rejected our proposal, which is when we withdrew it." Bivens said there are several reasons for the negotiations standstill.
"There's several issues at hand," he said. "One of them is longevity. Another one is cell phones and reimbursement for deputies using them for work- related issues. There's also a shift differential issue."
The longevity issue is not relevant to deputies, Bivens said.
"Most people in public service have some sort of program that offers rewards for longstanding employees. The deputies have one, but the detention staff and the dispatchers don't have it and they would like it."