By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Havre City Council on Monday night rejected the police union's grievance over health insurance, but city and union officials said the two sides may still be able to avoid binding arbitration.
"We have tried diligently to work with the police union, and it's almost like it's - we're not making any progress, " Havre Mayor Bob Rice told the council before it voted 8-0 to reject the grievance.
The Montana Public Employees Association, the union representing 17 police officers, filed the grievance 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. The city says the contract specifically states that the city will not pay for any increase in health insurance premiums after the first year of the two-year contract. The first year of the contract ended June 30.
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.
Talks between the union and the city's Labor Relations Committee on Oct. 21 failed to reach an agreement, and Tom Bivins of the MPEA said the officers felt the matter would best be left up to binding arbitration.
At that time Bivins said the union cannot apply to the state Board of Personnel Appeals for arbitration until the City Council responded to the grievance in writing.
City Council President Rick Pierson told the council Monday night that the council had reached the end of the 30-day suspension and had to act on the grievance.
City Council member Jack Brandon, who chairs the council's Labor Relations Committee, told the council before the vote that binding arbitration might still be avoided.
"Tom Bivins drafted a letter to me, and hopefully we'll go back to the bargaining table again," he said, adding that he should get the letter today or Wednesday.
Bivins, who did not attend the meeting Monday night, said today the letter asks the City Council to take official action on the grievance and notify the union so it can move forward with the arbitration process.
He said that even if the two sides reach agreement on what the city will pay in health insurance for officers this year, that won't necessarily stop the grievance from going forward.
Bivins said that last week Brandon told him the city had agreed to pay the officers the same health insurance contributions it is offering to pay other city employees, and that he assumed officers would see less money deducted from their paychecks beginning with the Oct. 31 check. The city has offered to pay half of the 45 percent increase in contract negotiations with other unions representing city employees.
Havre City Clerk Lowell Swenson said there has been no change in the officers' pay.
Brandon said he discussed the officers' insurance contributions with Bivins last week, but that the city did not make an offer.
"We're not making that offer because of where they're at with this," Brandon said. "It's my understanding that they want to go forward with this grievance."
Bivins said he met with the officers on Thursday, and that they were almost unanimously in favor of going ahead with the grievance.
He said he will forward the matter to the Board of Personnel Appeals when he receives written notification of the council's decision.
"This doesn't preclude us from still talking," he added. "If you're scheduled for arbitration, it takes several months." Often arbitration can be avoided at the 11th hour, he said.