By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The union representing 15 Havre firefighters reached a tentative contract agreement with the city Tuesday night, including a 3 percent pay raise.
The firefighters had requested a 6 percent pay raise for six months beginning Jan. 1. But the three members of the Havre City Council's Labor Relations Committee who were present Tuesday repeatedly rejected that proposal during the four-hour session.
The 6 percent raise would have cost the same amount as a 3 percent raise for the full year. But, committee members said, it would end up costing the city more because firefighters would be at a higher rate of pay as they began negotiating a new contract next year.
The sides appeared to be heading to mediation before the agreement was reached.
"Well, then I guess we have nothing to talk about," said Mike Anderson, who chairs the negotiating committee of Local 601 of the International Association of Firefighters.
"If we need to head to the M word, that's where we're at," said Labor Relations Committee member Allen "Woody" Woodwick.
After leaving the room to talk, the union committee agreed to the 3 percent, one-year raise retroactive to July 1.
The city in turn agreed to continue to pay this year's 45 percent health insurance premium increase until Jan. 1, instead of Dec. 1 as it had proposed earlier. After Jan. 1 the firefighters will pay for half the increase. Because of language in last year's contract, the city has been paying for the entire 45 percent increase since rates went up in August. By Jan. 1 that will have cost the city about $6,000.
The sides compromised on the union's third remaining proposal: increased monthly skill pay for emergency medical technicians. The union wanted to increase pay an extra $20 a month for EMTs trained at the basic and intermediate levels, and $200 a month for paramedics. EMTs now get $80 a month for basic training and $130 for intermediate. The department has no paramedics and the last contract did not specify extra pay for them.
Initially the city had opposed any increase in skill pay this year because an increase was included in last year's contract. On Tuesday it agreed to pay $175 a month for paramedics, and to increase the pay for basic and intermediate levels 3 percent, to $82.40 a month for basic and $133.90 for intermediate.
At nearly 11 p.m. the agreement was still not certain, as the union balked at language that would require the city and the firefighters to each pay for half of any health insurance premium increase until a new contract is negotiated. The sides agreed to change the language to guarantee that the firefighters will not pay for any additional health insurance premium increase between Jan. 1 and June 30. If the firefighters are still negotiating a new contract after July 1 and rates go up, the city and the union will each pay half the increase.
Woodwick said he does not anticipate a rate increase before July 1.
Union members and the City Council must approve the new contract before it can take effect. Anderson said union members will meet tonight and he thinks they will accept it.
"We wouldn't have proposed it if we didn't think we could sell it," he said.
If the union ratifies the contract before the next City Council meeting on Dec. 1, Woodwick said he thinks the union members will get a check with their 3 percent pay raise - retroactive to July 1 - before Christmas.
Anderson said today that the contract negotiations are not related to the question of whether the city violated last year's contract by requiring firefighters to pay their own dental insurance premiums. At a Nov. 11 meeting, the union claimed the city had made an error beginning with last year's contract, and owes the firefighters a total of about $2,500.
Last year's contract set a cap on the amount firefighters had to pay toward their health insurance every month. An individual firefighter would pay nothing; a firefighter with a spouse or child on the plan would pay no more than $152.50; a firefighter with a family on the plan would pay no more than $192.75. The union says those caps should have included the firefighters' dental contributions. Instead, firefighters have had to pay for their dental contributions - which range from $5 to $20 a month - in addition to the amount they paid for their health insurance contributions.
The city took the matter to the City Attorney's Office last week. Woodwick said the office thinks that by law the union would have had to address the matter in the first couple months of the last year's contract to have grounds for a grievance.
Anderson said the union will probably also decide tonight whether to pursue a grievance against the city over the matter.