Havre Daily News
Havre Mayor Bob Rice on Tuesday night voiced concerns over a provision in a city labor contract that he said may leave the city with too few workers to assist the Montana Department of Transportation in its massive First Street reconstruction project.
The Havre City Council, with one dissenting vote, approved an agreement with the city's public works union, but not before Rice recessed to hold a private talk with public works director Dave Peterson.
City negotiators had reached an agreement with representatives of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to enable two city service employees to work an 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. shift in summer months - when other workers will be on the clock from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The pair of workers would stay later in the afternoon to help with the MDT project, slated to begin in 2007 and last at least two years.
When City Council member Terry Schend, who chaired the council's Labor Relations Committee during the contract negotiations, spoke about the provision during a presentation to the council about the agreement, Rice cut him short.
He first asked if city attorney Mary VanBuskirk had reviewed the agreement, and Schend said she had.
Rice then asked Peterson if he had reviewed it, and the department head said he had.
“You approved that?” Rice asked. “Two employees, during the biggest construction project in Montana history?”
Rice then called a recess and spoke with Peterson privately.
After the meeting reconvened, Rice said he would be “as polite as I can” in elaborating on his concerns.
“We will be under the gun for the next three years. I am concerned about this project, as you should be,” he told the council.
“The business people on First Street deserve the best we can offer,” he added. He said he wanted as many as five workers available to help with the project.
Rice said Peterson assured him that his concerns were unnecessary and noted that the contract has been agreed upon by the union.
“We worked hard on this agreement,” Schend said before he made a motion for the City Council to vote on the contract. City Council member Pam Hillery, who also was a city negotiator, seconded the motion.
Before the vote, Schend also said union workers had “indicated that if circumstances required, they would be there.”
“At time and a half,” Rice said.
Schend said he had the union negotiators' word that they would help out at their regular pay rate.
He said today that the union indicated that more workers would be willing to work the 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. shift if needed.
“They would voluntarily change,” Schend said. He added that the verbal agreement did not mean employees would work overtime hours for regular pay, which is not allowed under state law.
Local union president Drue Newfield could not be reached for comment today.
Rice said he had been told that such agreements were worthless unless they were in writing, referencing earlier criticism he had received over “handshake” agreements.
The City Council voted to approve the contract, with City Council president Rick Pierson - the third city negotiator - casting the lone no vote. Before the vote, Pierson said he also is concerned about the First Street project.
Rice declined to comment after the meeting. Peterson could not be reached for comment today.
The First Street project is considered the largest urban project undertaken by MDT. Workers will completely reconstruct 33 blocks of Havre's main drag, replacing water and sewer lines, resurfacing the roadway and beautifying the corridor.
MDT district administrator Mick Johnson said today that city workers could be asked to inspect the utility line replacement and make decisions regarding water and sewer hookups.
The city hired a consultant to design the utility project, Johnson said, and that consultant also could inspect the work.
“All of that would have to be inspected and approved by someone with the city or representing the city,” Johnson said.
He added that city service employees would not be working on the actual reconstruction.
He said the number of inspections city workers may have to perform would vary based on how much work would be done by the city's consultant and on how the contractor goes about the project.
If the construction company is large enough to work at three or four locations at once, Johnson said, two workers may not be enough. If the contractor works only at one site, two would be plenty, he said.
The labor contract provides pay raises of 3 percent this year and 3.5 percent next year, and also increased the pay grade for four employees. The city and employees are sharing the costs associated with an increase in health insurance premiums.