By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A grievance filed by the Havre police union against the city alleging unfair labor practices has been denied by Havre Mayor Bob Rice and will go before the City Council, the representative of the local bargaining unit said Tuesday.
Havre police Sgt. Bill Wilkinson said he thinks the council is likely to reject the grievance. If that happens, he said, the grievance will be submitted to the state Board of Personnel Appeals for binding arbitration.
The Montana Public Employees Association represents 17 Havre police officers.
"I think that's running its course now," Wilkinson said, adding that going through the mayor and the council is part of the procedure the police must go through before arbitration can happen.
The grievance alleges that the city violated its contract with police officers when it passed new higher health insurance premiums on to police officers instead of negotiating first. It also claims the city violated the contract by not forming an insurance committee composed of representatives of each of the three unions representing city employees plus representatives of nonunion employees to meet with the city's insurance agent on a monthly basis to help monitor costs.
The police are in the second year of a two-year contract with the city. The contract said the city would absorb any health insurance increase the first year. "For the second year," the contract says, "Medical Insurance shall be open for negotiation."
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 arrangement, a single employee pays $46 a month. An employee with a second person on his or her plan has had a rate increase of about $80 a month, while the rate increase for families has been about $94 a month. The City Council approved those rates on Aug. 18.
Originally the Finance Committee said the rates would only affect nonunion workers because the police, fire and public works unions would have to negotiate for the cost of their insurance.
But when officers received their paychecks at the end of August, the higher cost of insurance had been deducted for July and August, said Dick LeTang of the Montana Public Employees Association.
The grievance, endorsed by all 17 members of the bargaining unit, was filed on Aug. 29.
Havre city clerk Lowell Swenson has said the officers paid the higher rates back to the middle of August, not the beginning of July.
He said the city was only following the contract, which says, "The City will pay any excess premium cost for the first year of the contract only."
Wilkinson said the rates should have stayed the same as the first year until they are negotiated. He said that according to the contract, negotiations had to open by Feb. 28 to change the insurance premiums. He said the union notified the city before then and never heard back from city officials.
After the grievance was filed in August, it went to Rice.
Wilkinson said the union received Rice's response on Sept. 12.
"(Rice) kicked it back to us saying that he found no merit in the grievance and it is denied," Wilkinson said. He said that after the union received the letter, LeTang sent a letter to Swenson.
"The Union is in receipt of the Mayor's response to this grievance, and finds his response unacceptable," the letter said. "This grievance is moved to you for review." It also requests a meeting with the council members before the council's next meeting.
"It's now in their court," Wilkinson said.
Rice did not respond to a call asking for comment this morning.
Swenson said today he received the union's letter on Thursday and will forward it this week to City Council President Rick Pierson, who he said will decide what to do with the complaint.
Swenson said he does not know whether the council will take up the matter at the next regularly scheduled council meeting on Oct. 6 or if it will have a special meeting.
Pierson could not be reached for comment this morning.
Swenson said he thinks the grievance has been blown out of proportion.
"We've had grievances in the past, but we've never had it in the headlines," he said.
But Wilkinson said that at least for the police, this is not a regular occurrence.
"For me this is new ground," he said. "We've never gone this far."
If the complaint is not settled when the council takes it up, Wilkinson said, it will be submitted to the Board of Personnel Appeals within 15 days.
The board will then give a list of five possible arbitrators, and each party will take turns eliminating an arbitrator until one is selected.
He said he does not know what the timeline will be if the matter goes to binding arbitration.