By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Havre police officers have voted to accept a city offer to pay half of this year's 45 percent health insurance premium increase retroactive to August, ending a labor dispute that lasted for months.
About 55 percent of the 14 officers in the bargaining unit voted by mail-in ballot to accept the offer, said Dick Letang, director of field services for the Montana Public Employees Association, the union that represents the Havre officers.
"Basically the details are the same as the other employees are receiving, retroactive to the date when the increased health insurance premiums went into effect," he said.
Letang would not speculate on why some of the officers did not support the offer.
The city has been paying for half the insurance increase for Havre firefighters, public works employees, and nonunion employees since last fall.
But because of its interpretation of language in the police officers' contract, the city began taking the entire premium increase out of their paychecks in August, prompting the union to file a grievance the following month.
The union said language in the current contract required the city to pay for the entire increase until negotiations were reopened. The city said 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.
Talks broke down in October after the union declined the city's offer to pay for half of the increase, and both sides said it was likely the issue would go to binding arbitration.
In December the union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state Board of Personnel Appeals, alleging the city made a verbal commitment to pay for part of the increase and then reneged on its offer. The city denied making a verbal commitment.
The complaint was still under investigation when the parties met in March and the city again proposed to pay half the health insurance increase retroactive to August. At that time the officers' bargaining unit agreed to take the offer back to the officers for a vote.
Letang said he talked to Havre Mayor Bob Rice and Labor Relations Committee Chair Terry Schend last week to tell them that the officers had reached an agreement.
He said the parties will not go to binding arbitration, and that the officers' unfair labor practice complaint will be dismissed.
Rice said today that Letang told him in person last week that the officers had settled the dispute, but that they did not discuss any details.
"He said they'd voted to accept the offer and that was it," Rice said.
Once the city receives written notice from MPEA, the City Council will have to vote on the agreement, Rice said.
City Clerk Lowell Swenson said today he does not know the total amount that will be paid retroactively to the police officers if the City Council approves the agreement.
He said the city had budgeted to pay half of the insurance increase and that the money has been there since then, so the offer will not cause any budget problems.