By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Disagreement over the amount the city should contribute to the health insurance premiums of 17 Havre police officers means binding arbitration is likely after city and union officials met Tuesday night, a union official said.
The Montana Public Employees Association, the union representing the police officers, filed a grievance over the issue on Sept. 5 after the city began taking a 45 percent insurance premium increase out of the officers' paychecks. The union says language in the current contract prohibits the city from doing that without reopening negotiations.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice denied the grievance in September, and the union referred it to the City Council. On Sept. 29 the grievance was suspended for 30 days so the sides could try to reach an agreement.
During a 3-hour meeting Tuesday night, the city proposed to pay for half of the 45 percent increase. The meeting was attended by the City Council's Labor Relations Committee, Tom Bivins of the Montana Public Employees Association, and Havre police Sgt. Bill Wilkinson, who represents the local bargaining unit.
The city has made the same offer to unions representing city firefighters and public works employees, which are negotiating new contracts. Labor Relations Committee chair Jack Brandon has said repeatedly this fall that the city should make the same insurance contribution for all groups of city employees.
"So we have to pay an additional 25 percent to make it even. And that's fair?" Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson and Bivins left the room to talk and came back more than an hour later with a counterproposal.
Bivins said they talked to some of the police officers, who felt that because of the emotions involved in the dispute, it would be best left up to binding arbitration.
"They think it's prudent to have a third party to make this decision and I don't know that I disagree," Bivins told the committee.
The counterproposal also asks the city to pay for part of the health insurance increase in the meantime as a "good faith effort."
After leaving the room for 10 minutes to discuss the counterproposal, the committee said it was sticking to its original proposal.
"The proposal we've made to the police is a fair one. It's short and simple, and it's what everyone else is getting," Brandon told the group.
Brandon told the union he does not want the matter to go to binding arbitration, and that the committee is willing to negotiate further if the union changes its mind.
"I obviously was disappointed," Brandon said. "We certainly had high hopes of settling this. I don't think it's in anybody's best interest to do this."
After the meeting, Bivins said it is "pretty likely" that the matter will go to arbitration.
Bivins said today he has learned that the union cannot apply to the state Board of Personnel Appeals for arbitration until the City Council responds to the grievance in writing.
If the council denies the grievance, it will likely go to arbitration, he said. He added that arbitration is "not absolutely certain," and that the union could decide to come back to the table.
Bivins will meet with Havre police officers in the next two weeks to explain what their options are.