By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Havre police officers will vote whether to accept a city proposal to pay for half of this year's 45 percent health insurance premium increase.
Representatives of 17 Havre police officers and the city met Monday afternoon for the first time since October to try to resolve a labor dispute over how much the officers pay for their health insurance.
Under the proposal offered by the Havre City Council's Labor Relations Committee at the meeting, the city would pay half of this year's premium increase retroactive to Aug. 31. The city has already agreed to pay half the 45 percent increase for employees represented by the firefighters and public works employees unions and for nonunion employees.
Dick Letang of the Montana Public Employees Association, the union representing the police officers, said he will take the city's proposal back to the officers for a vote, probably within the next week.
The MPEA called for the meeting with the Labor Relations Committee last week in a letter to committee chair Terry Schend. Schend said he could not provide a copy of the letter this morning because it was at his home and he did not have time to get it.
He said the union didn't explain in the letter why it wanted to come back to the table.
"They just wanted to see if they could resolve the issue prior to sending it to arbitration," he said.
Letang said Monday the union wanted to try to resolve the issue before contract negotiations for next year are opened again this spring.
"We want to get ready for future negotiations, and if the committee had an offer on the matter, we wanted to look at that," he said.
The city began taking the premium increase out of the officers' paychecks in August, prompting the union to file a greivance the following month.
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.
Monday's proposal is the same proposal the city offered the officers at their last meeting on Oct. 21. At that time the sides 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. It has not yet gone to arbitration.
In December the union filed a complaint with the state Board of Personnel Appeals, alleging the city had engaged in an unfair labor practice by making a verbal commitment to pay for part of the increase and then reneging on its offer. The city denied making a verbal commitment.
The matter is still under investigation. Mike Furlong, the investigator for the state in the matter, said last week that because the sides seemed to be willing to talk, he was waiting to see if they could resolve the matter on their own before he issued a decision.
Schend told the union representatives that there is money in the budget to pay for the proposal, but no more.
"We're set under what we can spend as far as this offer," he said. If the union agrees to the proposal, it must then be approved by the Havre City Council. That would mean it would most likely go into effect after the next City Council meeting on March 15.
The city has repeatedly expressed a desire to have all city employees receive the same health insurance contribution from the city.
Committee member Dana West said Monday that if that happens, an ad hoc insurance committee made up of representatives of all the city's employee groups is more likely to make an effort to keep health insurance premiums low.
"We're hoping with everyone in the same boat, the insurance committee can function to keep rates lower," West said.
Letang said he will probably take the proposal to the officers in person this week.
"It's going to be up to the officers," he said.
Sgt. Bill Wilkinson said after the meeting he didn't know if the officers will accept the offer or not.
Schend said that so far he was not necessarily encouraged by the union's request to come back to the table.
"I'm kind of neutral at this point," he said.
The sides scheduled a meeting for April 5 at 7 p.m. to discuss the union's proposals for a new two-year contract. The officers' current two-year contract expires June 30.